While the theatrical market is still taking it slow amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, studios have kept content-starved audiences engaged via a myriad of streaming releases. I am encouraged to see studios keeping content moving especially during the infamous wintery doldrums of February. Given my hefty Sundance workload at the beginning of the month, I’m reviving this hilariously inconsistent blog series to cover the February releases existing around the periphery. Let’s get it rolling!
BLISS – Directed by Mike Cahill
Synopsis: An unfulfilled man (Owen Wilson) and a mysterious woman (Salma Hayek) believe they are living in a simulated reality, but when their newfound ‘Bliss’ world begins to bleed into the ‘ugly’ world they must decide what’s real and where they truly belong.
The buzz surrounding Mike Cahill’s latest sci-fi experiment Bliss has not been glowing, but I’ve always had a personal affinity for the director’s ambitious marriage between concept and themes. While his latest effort doesn’t quite come together as intended, it isn’t without some notable promise.
Utilizing an idealized, Matrix-esque reality to ruminate on the alienating effects of drug abuse and depression, Cahill certainly has his pulse on a worthwhile premise. His against-type casting of Owen Wilson helps sell the distorted reality while also displaying the actor’s rarely-recognized range. Wilson’s vulnerability adds a welcomed earnestness to his straightforward character, as he and Salma Hayek develop a natural rapport that effectively highlights the duo’s manic existence. I also give Cahill credit for taking advantage of his most luxurious budget to date on the screen. His inventive visual touches help engulf audiences into the characters’ vibrant mindsets, with Cahill consistently finding little cues to build-upon his familiar science fiction concept (the Bill Nye casting is top-notch).
I’ve always loved Cahill’s intimate approach to the sci-fi genre, but his well-intended dramatic aspirations never quite come together. Outside of a few engaging visual techniques, Cahill’s screenplay only observes its meaningful conditions on a surface level. The dearth of insular character moments feels noticeable as the film only keeps audiences engaged through its semi-interesting narrative. I can see how the plotting could represent the alluring highs and sobering lows of addiction. That being said, the audience remains a step ahead of Cahill’s narrative as he traverses down predictable territory.
Bliss doesn’t really work as intended, yet I still am enamored by Cahill’s inventive spirit as a filmmaker. I hope he doesn’t take another lengthy break between big-screen projects (his last film I Origins came out in 2014), as this promising misfire still reflects his unique skillset as a craftsman.
Bliss premiered February 5th on Amazon Prime.
TO ALL THE BOY: ALWAYS AND FOREVER – Directed by Michael Fimognari
Synopsis: As Lara Jean Covey prepares for the end of high school and the start of adulthood, a pair of life-changing trips lead her to reimagine what life with her family, friends, and Peter will look like after graduation.
Netflix has single-handedly revived the romantic comedy genre with their well-regarded To All the Boys franchise leading the forefront (sorry Kissing Booth). While I enjoyed the first film for its shamelessly earnest energy, its sequel I Still Love You stretched the lines of plausibility past their breaking point. The conclusion to the trilogy Always and Forever sadly falls into the sequel’s inauthentic predicament.
Stars Lana Condor and Noah Centineo continue to make a compelling pair onscreen, but Always and Forever settles for the safest rom-com contrivances. There’s promise in the film’s exploration of the last year of high school, a period where adolescents become adults and typically move on from the world they once knew. Aside from a few intimate frames (John Corbett continues to shine as Lara Jean’s supportive father), the premise is mostly explored from a simplistic perspective.
Cinematographer turned director Michael Fimognari pushes the narrative forward with confectionary montages and poppy song choices, yet it all reeks with a generic busyness (seriously Netflix, not every scene needs a new top 100 pop track). Netflix deserves props for reviving a long-forgotten genre, especially in embracing more diversified stories amongst its mostly whitewashed peers. That being said, Always and Forever’s schmaltzy energy likely won’t resonate outside of its target demographic.
To All the Boys: Always and Forever premiered on Netflix on February 12th.
FLORA AND ULYSSES – Directed by Lena Khan
Synopsis: Based on the Newbery Award-winning book about 10-year-old Flora, an avid comic book fan and a self-avowed cynic, whose parents have recently separated. After rescuing a squirrel she names Ulysses, Flora is amazed to discover he possesses unique superhero powers, which take them on an adventure of humorous complications that ultimately change Flora’s life–and her outlook–forever.
Disney continues to steadily build upon its original content library with Flora and Ulysses. Similar to some of the other early Disney+ originals (looking at you Artemis Fowl and Magic Camp), this painfully by-the-numbers detour into kid hijinks barely registers a pulse.
I can’t fault the lovely ensemble cast for trying to carry the thin material over the finish line. It’s been a joy to watch Ben Schwartz break out in the mainstream, with the Sonic star’s quick-timing and affable energy always making him a beloved presence onscreen. His DuckTales compatriots Danny Pudi, Kate Micucci, and Bobby Moynihan add some much-needed comedic flavoring with their supporting roles, while Alyson Hannigan provides a sturdy center as Flora’s self-deprecating mom.
Outside of a few bright sparks from the talented cast, Flora and Ulysses boasts little to endorse. I am happy to see director Lena Khan land another project after her overlooked debut The Tiger Hunter, but the talented filmmaker is mostly reduced to director-for-hire tendencies. The premise’s superhero elements are also integrated without much creativity or consistency, often relying upon infrequent visual quirks to relay some sort of energy. Brad Copeland’s generic adaptation of the celebrated book reduces the material’s strengths into a mish-mash of mawkish cliches (it’s a Disney movie, so of course the parents aren’t getting along). It won’t take clairvoyant vision for audiences to predict each tired plot development, as the bland final product mostly reeks of thankless studio mandates.
Flora and Ulysses is entirely tolerable and not without some comedic bright spots. It’s just a shame that this Disney+ release feels more like a merchandised product than any sort of creatively-crafted creation.
Flora and Ulysses premiered on Disney+ on February 19th.
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