It wasn’t an April Fools’ prank, though now it kind of feels like one: On the first of the month, Netflix dropped not one but two features from brand-name American directors with moderate (that would be Judd Apatow’s calamitous pandemic satire The Bubble) to nonexistent (Richard Linklater’s enchanting time capsule Apollo 10½: A Space Age Childhood) promotional campaigns. The latter is surely one of the service’s finest additions of the year to date, and it’s in respectable company with a goofy, hard-to-resist coming-of-age picture about teen metalheads and a hard-nosed South Korean crime thriller. Beat the annual April showers, stay indoors, and read up on Netflix’s newest original films:
Apollo 10½: A Space Age Childhood
God bless Richard Linklater. His third rotoscope-animated feature (moving to a looser, lighter place after the philosophically ponderous Waking Life and A Scanner Darkly) barely holds together as a movie. It’s closer to a hundred-minute monologue, recounting in painstaking detail just how awesome it was to grow up in late-’60s Texas. Anyone not inclined to roll their eyes at this obsessively observed exercise in nostalgia will be wowed by the level of commitment to the bit; the narrator (Jack Black, a seeming stand-in for the filmmaker himself) rattles off dozens of television shows, records, and other bits of cultural ephemera, setting the scene for this time and place. Linklater eulogizes a halcyon moment with golden-hazed sentimentality even as he acknowledges the corporal punishment and lax safety standards that look demented in retrospect. But he doesn’t cast judgement, more interested in cataloguing the ways that unsupervised kids entertained themselves prior to the insularity of the computer and smartphone.
Everyone reacted to the upheavals of the pandemic in their own way. Some of us learned how to make the perfect stew or do macramé; Judd Apatow gathered a production crew in a well-appointed English mansion to rush order into existence this perplexingly unfunny reaction to the moment. A misplaced sense of duty to keep the wearied masses laughing clearly motivated his spoof tracking the shoot of a faux blockbuster and the cast of pampered actors’ gradual loss of their marbles in a world of 14-day isolation periods and sanitization regulations. Set aside the issues of pacing and writing (dear Lord, another TikTok interlude?), and there’s still the foundational problem that, in such a dire time, the last thing regular folks care about is the inconveniences and boredom of showbiz types. The film even admits as much, and yet that awareness wasn’t enough to convince anyone to stop and rethink the woe-is-me approach to the material.
Forever Out of My League
Italy’s premier teen-weepie trilogy sputters to a conclusion in this final installment, which runs out of meaningful narrative challenges for cystic fibrosis survivor Marta (Ludovica Francesconi). The film begins as she comes out of the medically induced coma used as a cliffhanger for the last one, but once she’s given the okay by her doctors, writers Roberto Proia and Michela Straniero struggle to find something with comparable gravity for her to do. Their best shot is “navigate the choppy waters of real estate,” as Marta searches for a love-nest apartment with her boyfriend while her former roommates hatch an Airbnb scheme. The emotional core of the movie pertains to Marta’s mending of fences with the grandmother who wasn’t around enough when she was orphaned at 3, but the mismanagement of tone leaves these scenes feeling every bit as inconsequential as the dealings with landlords and search for guarantors. Once the stakes have been set at life and death, you can’t scale back to the agony and ecstasy of improving your credit score.
The odd preponderance of Polish-language crime thrillers in the Netflix Original catalogue puts the onus of finding some form of novelty in each successive example, and director Cyprian T. Olecki doesn’t seem up to the challenge. The hook for his inexcusably overlong gangster picture sends an informant undercover into the ranks of his brother’s crew of soccer hooligans to snitch him free of drug-dealing charges. This puts him on track for a crisis of conscience between his obligation to the law and his loyalty to family, a setup so done to death that there’s a 30 Rock joke about it. Though the brutal gallows humor and copious fight scenes are better than most, it’s all too dully predictable to hold anybody for the two-plus hours the film demands, and the muddied digital cinematography doesn’t give us much to look at in the meanwhile. What should’ve been the distinguishing factor — the unique role organized crime plays in Polish society — is decontextualized and ironed out into a broad inner struggle like any other.
Dancing on Glass
As the movies would have it, there are few jobs as psychologically exacting as that of a ballerina. Jota Linares’s Black Swan riff starts with a prima donna’s suicide then shows us the cocktail of internal and external pressures that could very well drive the next big face to a similar fate. The National Classical Ballet’s hot new talent Irene (María Pedraza, a Netflix favorite for her roles in Money Heist and Elite) immediately starts to see why her predecessor jumped for it as her own eating disorder and related insecurities combine with the constant battery of emotional abuse from draconian instructor Norma (Mona Martínez). She finds solace only in the company of junior dancer Aurora (Paula Losada), with whom she forms a bond of dark, deluded comfort. It’s all gripping enough on paper, but Linares’s use of neither camera movement nor color conveys the visceral sense of mental distortion that made previous entries in the unstable-ballerina canon stick the landing.
Metalheads get a bad rap as violent ne’er-do-wells with tastes for anything from wanton destruction to murder (that happened, like, once), but Peter Sollett’s coming-of-rage film investigates the pathos behind the headbanging and pentagrams. In the bond between lifelong BFFs Hunter (Adrian Greensmith) and Kevin (Jaeden Martell), with their band’s lineup soon expanding to include vocalist Emily (Isis Hainsworth), the anti-everyone ethic of metal serves as a pillar around which they can organize their own mini-community. Screenwriter and former Game of Thrones showrunner D.B. Weiss skews toward the juvenile in his attempt to split the difference between his characters’ childhood and adulthood, so they articulate their solidarity through dorky language that often strays into a cornball place anathema to the real metal mindset. Ultimately, however, there’s a trace of the authentic in the way Hunter translates his own personal-life frustrations into music that empowers the powerless.
Yaksha: Ruthless Operations
The Chinese city of Shenyang’s location just north of the border with North Korea makes it a hotspot for espionage as spies from both countries, as well as South Korea, Russia, and Japan, scramble to get ahead of one another’s plotting. South Korean prosecutor Ji-hoon (Park Hae-soo, best known for the popular series Squid Game) gets an assignment to clear up some corruption charges in Shenyang but tumbles into a far grander frame-up conspiracy targeting the black-ops group he’s supposed to work with. He and the team’s leader, Kang-in (Sol Kyung-gu, the star of Lee Chang-dong’s Peppermint Candy), must earn each other’s trust if they want to survive the traps, sabotage, and torture awaiting them in this playground of neon. With this vibrant backdrop, they form the expected rapport and fight the expected fights, though predictability isn’t a problem in either case because of the accomplished execution. Both actors bring a gruff credibility to their archetypal characters, the mottled tough guys that populated American cinema in the ’70s.