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Checking In on Netflix’s Original Movies: August 2021 Edition

John David Washington in Beckett. Photo: Yannis Drakoulidis

Taking a bird’s-eye view of the calendar for 2021, it looks like Netflix has been pacing itself. By this time last year, it’d already released one of 2020’s major films with Da 5 Bloods, and was a couple short weeks away from premiering a critically adored documentary (Dick Johnson Is Dead) and a polarizing work from an essential auteur (Charlie Kaufman’s I’m Thinking of Ending Things). The Big Red N has been having a quiet August, however, seemingly clustering its big names in the end of the year; Lin-Manuel Miranda, Jane Campion, Paolo Sorrentino, Antoine Fuqua, and Adam McKay are all on the docket for the next few months. That just means we can direct our attention more fully to deserving selections off the beaten path, including a winningly upbeat musical spanning the Straits of Florida, a supersized samurai epic, and a skin-crawling French creature feature. Read on for a selection of this month’s under-the-radar highlights:

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Between the original songs from Lin-Manuel Miranda, the sugar-rush physical comedy, and the often dazzling visual artistry, there’s a lot to like in this adoptee discarded by Sony Animation. The Cuba/southern Florida region proves a felicitous setting for an adventure bearing more than a little similarity to Coco, in which another musician — a cuddly guitar-playing kinkajou also voiced by Miranda — must embark on a comic journey to share his song, in this case while evading menacing Girl Scouts. Though Sony’s designs for its human characters remain off-putting, it’s mastered the many animals and the scenery they inhabit, drawing the fantasy out from the traditional cultural aesthetics of Havana and Miami. The hip-hop bent of the musical numbers sometimes clashes with the overall tone, not to mention the already robust musical heritages of the area, but they’re energetic and verbally dextrous enough to overcome that friction.

The Swarm

Once upon a time in the early ’00s, France led the world in onscreen depravity, the many displays of violent taboo-pushing collected under the informal label of New Extremity. The first feature from Just Philippot harkens back to those salad days of bodily mutilation with a newfound technical finesse, making CGI obedience possible from the many animal co-stars. A frustrated widow (Suliane Brahim) can’t figure out why the locusts she breeds for sale seem lethargic, until she takes a spill and comes to only to see her insects feasting upon the blood from her gashed arm. Slaking their thirst for blood perks the bugs right up, but sets off a Little Shop of Horrors situation in which their human caretaker must continue feeding them through increasingly ghastly means. The rudimentary themes of coping with grief don’t intrude too much on an extravaganza of realistically rendered gore that delights in transgression; Philippot holds nothing back to such successfully chilling effect that the restraint exercised by others starts to look like cowardice rather than virtue.

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Rurouni Kenshin: The Beginning

Bear with us for a second: This adaptation of a manga already huge in Japan is the final installment in the five-movie franchise, whereas the previous release (subtitled The Final) only comes last chronologically. This prequel actually provides this complex universe with an accommodating point of entry, in which viewers benefit more from a knowledge of Tokugawa history than of the previous films. Its nearly two and a half hours give us a lot of plot and characters to keep straight, but those thrown from the narrative can still revel in the samurai-exploits endemic to the wuxia subgenre. An equivalent of America’s beloved Western, this genre allows viewers to luxuriate in the atmosphere of the hard-bitten past, feudal Japan taking the place of the frontier. Director Keishi Ōtomo knows precisely what draws someone to a film like this, generous with the swordplay, heated monologues about vengeance, and seemingly weightless fight choreography.

Beckett

There’s an inherent terror to the “wrong man” subgenre of thrillers, which place an ordinary character in the nightmare position of being hunted by everyone they meet, including the authority figures they might go to for help. And there’s an inherent watchability to John David Washington, one of the few thespians in his generation with a serious claim to movie-star status. The assumption that pairing them would result in a foolproof success turns out to be misplaced, a humdrum script and eventual betrayal of the leading man’s all-important ordinariness both getting in the way of what should be the obvious pleasures in Ferdinando Cito Filomarino’s English-language debut. Even before Beckett turns into a borderline superhuman as circumstances demand, he’s not distinguished by much of anything aside from the dully articulated grief for his girlfriend (Alicia Vikander). A late-in-the-game attempt to massage some political commentary into the mix goes about as well as everything else.

The Kissing Booth 3

The conclusion to this needlessly drawn-out teen rom-com series has been all but foregone for about two installments now; of course it ends with our gal Elle (Joey King, doing Disney Channel acting despite not being a Disney alum) rejecting the choice between two boys and their respective colleges to go Find Herself, though who’d have guessed that means “going to USC to invent fantasy betting on e-sports.” Before that can be settled, she and her suitors (Joel Courtney and Jacob Elordi) set out to have the funnest summer ever, which at one point entails “making an epic blanket fort.” These films are most interesting in their odd mix of immaturity and precocity, focusing on kids who want to playact the romantic parts of adulthood — this 18-year-old wants to move in with her boyfriend to play house like a grown-up couple — while displaying the emotional development of a third-grader. In a best-case scenario, the writing would be aware of this dissonance key to the adolescent experience, but no such luck here.

Bartkowiak

The take-no-prisoners MMA circuit in Poland chews up and spits out the title character (Jozef Pawlowski) in the opening minutes of this action-drama, the capable fighter having been dosed in a rigged match. But what appears at first to be a hardened sports picture soon pivots into criminal intrigue, as Bartkowiak realizes that his drugged-up defeat may have been part of a vaster scheme to develop the Warsaw neighborhood in which his brother (Antoni Pawlicki) owns a nightclub. Getting to the bottom of the matter requires a series of beatdowns that director Daniel Markowicz shoots in dextrous close-ups, all of which lead him to the intolerably hammy villain Kolodziejczyk (Bartlomiej Topa), his rhapsodizing about various esoterica at odds with the lean presentation overall. His scenery-chewing belongs in a lighter and looser movie, representing one pole of subpar acting while Pawlowski’s stiff underplaying (think Sam Worthington) represents the other.

The Last Letter From Your Lover

That specifically British brand of cozy romance hits the sweet spots in Augustine Frizzell’s adaptation of a best-selling paperback, albeit via some ridiculous plotting bound to bother anyone not already sold on the joys of rolling hills and furtive glances. In the present day, comely journalist Elle (Felicity Jones) happens upon a collection of letters laying out the partially epistolary love affair in the ’60s between a married socialite (Shailene Woodley) and the strapping journalist (Callum Turner) writing about her husband (Joe Alwyn). Dumb happenstance (with the emphasis on “dumb,” including a convenient car crash and resultant case of amnesia) conspires to keep them apart, and more aggravating still, their agony and heartbreak ultimately amounts to motivation for Elle to carpe diem in her reserved love life. This film and those of its ilk — The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society and The Dig being two superior examples — offer a more dignified alternative to the hokum of Nicholas Sparks, but in this case, not by much.

Checking In on Netflix Original Movies: August 2021 Edition