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

Adam Sandler in Hustle. Photo: Scott Yamano/Netflix/Scott Yamano/Netflix

It may not have hot popcorn or sweet, delicious synthetic butter, but Netflix does indeed observe the summer-movie solstice. As franchises flood theaters, the streamer has pulled back the curtain on a pair of A-list star vehicles with enough draw to get audiences to stay home. In this corner, Adam Sandler coaches a basketball hotshot to NBA glory in Hustle, a good time especially for people who enjoy identifying pro athletes in quick cameos. And in this corner, Chris Hemsworth repeatedly doses Miles Teller in Spiderhead, a movie from Joseph Kosinski, hot off Top Gun, that refashions a George Saunders short story into a meat-and-potatoes sci-fi thriller. And that still leaves a Rwandan-genocide drama driven by high-stakes dialogue, an ass-kicking clinic from a regular in the Fast & Furious fambly, and an Argentine murder mystery about how professional writers are the worst. Read on for a breakdown of Netflix’s original movies in June and find a couple of reasons to skip the heat.

Essential streaming

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.

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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.

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