June has been a pretty downbeat month for Netflix, with the service seemingly uninterested in the theatrical model’s reliance on the summer blockbuster. As everyone gets out of the house, whether they’re headed to the movies or elsewhere, streaming platforms will hold their major attention-getters until cooling conditions drive us all back indoors. That has cleared room for some less expected titles, the best among them being an earthy horror fable set on the Mexico-Belize border. Those with a penchant for the world-ending spectacles in vogue this time of year can still watch Gina Rodriguez fight for the future of mankind, but international tastes are in for the real good stuff, with solid imports from Spain, India, and Italy rounding out the month’s slate. Crank up the AC and keep reading for this month’s Netflix picks.
The tracts of untamed nature dividing Mexico from Belize have been fought over, carved up, and bulldozed by European interests eager to strip-mine the fertile land for its resources. Yulene Olaizola locates some unbroken ground in the horror genre by focusing on the turbulent heritage of this region and directing that violence back at those responsible for it via the form of a spiteful female demon known as Xtabay. Runaway bride Agnes (Indira Rubie Andrewin) makes a break from her sadistic British betrothed (Dale Carley) only to fall in with a group of chicleros, laborers who machete the precious raw material used to make gum out of towering tree trunks. They start looking at their comely new companion the wrong way, unaware that she just might be a vessel for an entity that takes none too kindly to their figurative rape of the environment and literal violation of the human body. Olaizola makes the usual building blocks of a scary movie feel more inevitable and elemental, as if a centuries-old score stretching far past the boundaries of the screen is finally being settled.
As starting points for apocalyptic thrillers go, director and co-writer Mark Raso (of the early netflick Kodachrome) could do a lot worse than “How quickly would society collapse if everyone inexplicably lost the ability to sleep?” The gradual creep from insomnia to insanity enlivens scenes at unpredictable intervals, a less potent take on the main tension of The Crazies, but the narrative is hobbled in while following war veteran and recovering drug user Jill Adams (Gina Rodriguez). Upon realizing that her precious daughter holds the key to humankind’s future — like in Children of Men — the fiercely defensive mother embarks on a hazardous journey through a wasteland dotted with bands of marauders — like in The Road. We shuffle through recycled dystopia tropes until reaching a conclusion that applies the “Did you try turning it off and turning it on again?” principle to the brain, by which point the thoroughly cockamamie plotting has long since lost us. A cult materializes out of nowhere instantaneously, science serves whatever implausible master it needs to, and characters behave inconsistently based on the demands of the moment. If the film’s creators can’t bring themselves to care, why should we?
When working with a scrawnier budget, there’s a skill to making a small amount of money look like a large amount of money, but there’s also something to be said for wearing that cheapness on one’s sleeve rather than disguising it. That’s the major thing Daniel Benmayor’s beat-’em-up in Barcelona has going for it, an admirable willingness to lean so far into budgetary constrictions, like the smeary nighttime photography, that they start to affect the intentionality of a Michael Mann film. A schism has broken apart a triumvirate of siblings angling to inherit their father’s Spanish crime empire, leaving our man Max (Teo García) to form an alliance with sister Maria (Andrea Duro) so they might stymie the hostile takeover of black sheep Lucero (Oscar Jaenada). The shin-crunching action begins immediately and seldom lets up, its unyielding brutality more in line with the pre-millennium direct-to-video vibe that Benmayor nimbly rides.
In the posh Tuscan port town of Forte dei Marmi, the gaudy vacation homes for moneyed seasonal visitors all bristle with security cameras that surveil every square inch of space. But the questions of how they’re used, who they’re meant to protect, and who really controls them all complicate the mystery spun out from one night’s incident involving an abused young woman staggering around in a daze. It falls to Roberto (Marco D’Amore), the human panopticon manning the wall of monitors keeping watch over the town, to uncover a truth that some powerful people don’t want him to blab about. He must make his own moral rulings about issues of class as he’s subjected to the whims of people who use the term undesirables, along the way reiterating the eternal truth that rich people cannot be trusted. The route to this less-than-original insight isn’t particularly innovative either, aside from the focus on the visual textures and deeper significances of CCTV.
For inspirational true stories (a phrase that feels like it should be capitalized and marked with a TM) spun into films, there’s a point of diminishing returns at which the movie-ness of the real events starts to make them seem false, rather than perfectly suited for the screen. Case in point: Julio Quintana’s aggressively feel-good dramatization of the fishing-tournament victory earned by a group of scrappy, inexperienced underdogs from Cabo San Lucas, who really did donate over $250,000 in winnings to the orphanage that gave them a home. It’s the kind of story that fits snugly into a three-act structure — so much so that reality comes to feel prosaic and prescribed, especially where the uneasy alliance between caretaker Omar (Jimmy Gonzales) and gringo man of the sea Wade (Dennis Quaid) is concerned. The boating cinematography adds a trace of adventure, but it is drowned in can-do clichés about as fresh as week-old tuna.
Sweet & Sour
A viewer may find themselves continuously lowering their expectations as the minutes roll by in this dumbfounding romantic comedy from Korea. The humor announces early on — with some underhanded fat jokes — that it won’t be the film’s strong suit, but hopes that the split attractions between Hyuk (Jang Ki-yong); his girlfriend, Da-eun (Chae Soo-bin); and his work wife, Bo-yeong (Krystal Jung), will be any better soon reveal themselves to be misplaced as well. Maybe it’ll play with the tropes of its well-worn genre in some way? Alas, no, as a climactic dash to the airport defies belief in its straight-facedness. And just when it seems like a forgettably ordinary retread of standard rom-com beats, director Lee Gye-byeok throws in a twist with no reason or purpose. Whether making a dull film into a baffling one qualifies as a step up or down doesn’t make much of a difference; either way, it’s not even fun.
Parental wisdom goes that skateboarding leads to hooliganism, but director Manjari Makijany suggests the opposite: For the aimless kids of the rural Rajasthan village in which her easygoing drama is set, the sport compels them to apply themselves and learn some discipline through practice. The local elders object to the British visitor (Amrit Maghera) who introduces shredding to their community, and they push back against her plans to build a skate park and give the youths hope for their future. The dynamics between generations and cultures — the Western-ness of skateboarding is part of the resistance to it — are nothing new, but Makijany articulates them with a lighthearted touch rooted in the simple childhood joys of galavanting around the neighborhood. The passages that follow the junior speed demons as they cause minor chaos for grain-peddlers around town imagine a freer and spikier film as well-meaningly rebellious as the kids it focuses on.