The pandemic rages on here in the U.S., but online movies for your entertainment and edification keep coming. This week, we preview two adrenaline-fueled Hollywood summer films, two new documentaries and a restoration of a classic documentary.
Debuting on Netflix, “Project Power” is, along with “The Old Guard,” what passes for a superhero movie these days. It starts with a fun idea: there’s a pill that can give you a superpower, but you won’t know what that power is until you swallow it.
The downsides are that the power only lasts for five minutes, and that there could be side effects. For example, you could explode.
That’s about where the good idea ends, though. The jumbled, overactive movie is most about its slam-bang visual effects scenes, depicting certain powers (like a man on fire, Human Torch-style), and spends little time on the characters who wield those powers.
Teen Robin (Dominique Fishback) deals the pills to help out with her poor mother, who suffers from diabetes. New Orleans police officer Frank (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) — who wears a Steve Gleason jersey — has befriended her, presumably for some inside intel, but also because he genuinely seems to like her.
Meanwhile, Art (Jamie Foxx) is on the hunt for the bad guys behind the whole thing, to get back something that belongs to him. These three, of course, eventually team up for a showdown aboard a freighter at sea.
The bad guys, played by Amy Landecker and Rodrigo Santoro, among others, are flat and forgettable, and even Courtney B. Vance, as a police captain stuck under the criminals’ collective thumb, is wasted.
Directors Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman made their mark with the internet trolling movie “Catfish” and followed it up with entries in the surveillance camera-powered “Paranormal Activity” horror series. Then came “Nerve,” a fast-paced guilty-pleasure movie about the internet, trolling and fame-seeking.
Those movies were about something. Not only does “Project Power” not seem to be about anything, but Joost and Schulman seem out of their league. Their junky, jerky camerawork and lack of spatial awareness makes everything look garbled.
Yet the three leads are sometimes a saving grace, and it’s nice to see Black faces in the mix. Fishback, who had a small part in “The Hate U Give,” is spunky and lovable, and even gets a chance to rap in a few scenes. She’s remarkable, but “Project Power” isn’t.
Starring: Jamie Foxx, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Dominique Fishback, Courtney B. Vance
Written by: Mattson Tomlin
Directed by: Henry Joost, Ariel Schulman
Running time: 1 hour, 53 minutes
Starring Joe Keery, who’s better known as Steve (with the hair) on “Stranger Things,” the lunatic “Spree” will clearly be offensive to many, but it’s also insidiously appealing and fairly clever. It’s available Friday via digital/VOD.
Keery plays Kurt Kunkle, who, for 10 years, has dreamed of being a social media star, but has rarely even managed to get even double-digit numbers of views or likes.
As a Spree driver (the equivalent of Uber and Lyft), he installs cameras in his car and sets out for a night’s work. His first passenger is a white supremacist on his way to give a speech. (“You’re OK for a lib-tard!”) Kurt gives him some complimentary water, and the passenger chokes and dies.
Yes, Kurt has set off on his own murder… spree. He live-streams everything, hoping to finally break out and go viral.
A sassy female comedian (Sasheer Zamata), and an entitled, sarcastic kid (Joshua Ovalle), whom Kurt used to babysit, both with huge social media numbers, figure into Kurt’s increasingly insane night, as does his father (David Arquette), a DJ.
Many movies have tried to skewer social media and its ongoing impact on real life, but this time writer Gene McHugh and director/co-writer Eugene Kotlyarenko seem to have a plan. Their conclusion is nothing unique, but the road to get there is surprisingly intriguing.
From the names Spree and Kurt Kunkle, to the split-screen way “Spree” is presented, mounted camera footage next to vertically-placed phones (complete with an unending scroll of comments and emojis), the movie continually readjusts the location of where the line is crossed.
But the key is Keery, who manages to wind Kurt up in a way that makes him both lovable and sociopathic. You can even feel sorry for him. Clearly he is prevented from social media greatness by his neediness; he’s forever asking people to watch and subscribe and tag, etc.
Yet like a puppy wanting attention, he’s also kinda sweet, perhaps a demented combination of Marty McFly and Patrick Bateman. Whatever the movie’s faults, at least some credit should be given to the makers of “Spree” for pulling that off.
Starring: Joe Keery, Sasheer Zamata, Joshua Ovalle, David Arquette
Written by: Gene McHugh, Eugene Kotlyarenko
Directed by: Eugene Kotlyarenko
Running time: 1 hour, 32 minutes
Debuting on Apple TV+, the documentary “Boys State” is a most entertaining and revealing peek into the early days of what could be the future of American politics.
It takes place at an annual summer program sponsored by The American Legion — the girls have their own, separate program — wherein 600 participants are separated into two political parties, the Nationalists and the Federalists, and tasked to create their own government.
Certain teens will decide to run for governor, the highest elected office in the program.
Co-directed by Amanda McBaine and Jesse Moss — who worked together on the acclaimed 2014 doc “The Overnighters” — “Boys State” was filmed in Texas in 2018, where the majority of the participants are largely right-leaning.
Many debates center on abortion and gun control, and pro-life and pro-gun stances are met with hearty whoops from the crowd. One left-leaning candidate privately admits that he decided to lie to get votes.
Another, Steven Garza, who was born to immigrant parents, shows a natural openness when speaking, forgoing showboating with his own maturity and impressive wisdom. He’s arguably the hero of the picture.
But we also have Ben and Rene, who become the competing party chairpeople; African American Rene is brash and sassy, effectively putting down an impeachment attempt, while the outgoing Ben is survivor of meningitis and an amputee.
The must-see film leads up to the final election results, and these perhaps say quite a bit more about the state of America than expected.
With: Steven Garza, Robert Macdougal, Ben Feinstein, Rene Otero
Directed by: Jesse Moss, Amanda McBaine
Running time: 1 hour, 49 minutes
Executive produced by San Francisco State University alum and two-time Emmy winner Alex Borstein (“The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel”), the aptly-titled doc “Bombardier Blood” tells the story of Chris Bombardier, who hopes to become the first hemophiliac to climb Mount Everest.
Less dynamic or suspenseful than something like “Free Solo,” “Bombardier Blood” is instead tender and heartfelt. It will be released digital and VOD on Aug. 18.
Chris is seen in Nepal visiting other hemophiliacs who lack the care that Chris himself has been able to receive. He speaks with them warmly, and later weeps about their plight. He has them all sign a flag that he hopes to plant on the top of the mountain. (He’s the opposite of “Free Solo’s” arrogant Alex Honnold.)
We also meet Chris’ wife Jess. This truly lovely, supportive couple each gets misty and teary when they are separated by one of Chris’ climbs.
The film spends some time on the disease, which strikes about 1 in 10,000 humans at birth. They lack a clotting agent, called “factor,” which would normally stop bleeding. A bigger issue is internal bleeding, which can affect joints and limbs, and can be life-threatening.
The heartbreaking way that the AIDS crisis of the 1980s directly affected hemophiliacs is also addressed.
The final climb — which begins at about the halfway point of the 80-minute movie — is more like a guided tour than a nail-biting thriller. But Chris’s ultimate achievements are nonetheless unexpectedly poignant.
With: Chris Bombardier, Jessica Bombardier
Written by: Patrick James Lynch, Steven Sander
Directed by: Patrick James Lynch
Running time: 1 hour, 20 minutes
Finally, we have the superb, essential “Jazz on a Summer’s Day,” a 1959 film by noted photographer Bert Stern that has been newly restored. It will be available through virtual cinema programs at the Roxie Theater, the Smith Rafael Film Center, and elsewhere.
A legendary lineup of musicians includes Thelonious Monk, Anita O’Day, Dinah Washington, Chuck Berry, the Chico Hamilton Quintet with Eric Dolphy, Louis Armstrong, and, capping it all off, the mighty Mahalia Jackson.
Shot at the 1958 at the Newport Jazz Festival in Rhode Island, the movie perhaps isn’t the most technically polished concert film ever made, but Stern makes everything pulse and breathe with his curious, wandering shots of audience members, both enraptured and bored, as well as shots of a nearby yacht race. He captures the changing moods from bright day to enchanting night.
My only quibble is that Monk should have been given more than one song (he performs the beautiful “Blue Monk”). Either way, don’t miss this great film.
Jazz on a Summer’s Day
Starring: Anita O’Day, Dinah Washington, Chuck Berry, Louis Armstrong, Mahalia Jackson
Written by: Albert D’Annibale, Arnold Perl
Directed by: Bert Stern
Running time: 1 hour, 25 minutes