"Babylon Berlin" and "Sing Street" are this week's recommendations.
Drama! We have a code red drama alert!
Ever since social distancing began, and movie theaters across the world closed, there has been talk about how releasing movies directly to video-on-demand/streaming services might affect the industry. That talk has mostly centered around "Trolls: World Tour," which was released to VOD by Universal on April 10 (renting for $20) in lieu of waiting for movie theaters to reopen. This decision led some to wonder if this was the beginning of the end for movie theaters. If people are willing to pay theater prices for movies at home, the thought goes, why would films return to theaters at all? After all, rules dictate that studios only get 50% of profits from theater showings, while they get 80% of profits from VOD purchases and rentals.
On Tuesday, the dam burst open when Universal put out a press release touting the success of its strategy. In less than three weeks, "Trolls: World Tour" has been rented 5 million times and has grossed $100 million in sales. Because they get 80% of those sales, that means Universal has made approximately $77 million on the movie. The original "Trolls" made approx. $154 million domestic, and because they only got 50% of that cut, Universal's profits from both films has been about the same, the release said. It worked so well that Universal said it is going to do the same thing with certain films in the future, even after the pandemic is over.
Faulty logic aside — domestic box office is not the same as worldwide box office, and "Trolls" made much more than that worldwide (approximately $347 million), and VOD rentals are worldwide, so why wouldn't you compare to that box office, and also we're in a friggin' quarantine, so of course rentals are going to be quite higher than normal, I'm fine, I'm fine — the announcement that Universal would continue to release films to VOD on the same day they release to theaters pissed off AMC and Regal, two of the biggest theater chains worldwide. By Wednesday morning, both chains had promised to not show any Universal films until the company reversed course and adhered to the previously agreed-upon window of 90 days between a film's theatrical release and its availability to rent online.
This is a big deal! There's a reason why Universal decided to push back its latest "Fast and Furious" movie to 2021, among other push backs, instead of releasing it during the quarantine like "Trolls," and it's because Universal knows it won't do as well. Blockbusters are meant to be seen on a big screen. They are for laughing with your friends and eating too much popcorn and having the time of your life. Unlike "Trolls," which is the perfect antidote to a family with small children hitting the boredom wall, "Fast and Furious" isn't suited to VOD. It's an event movie, and without AMC and Regal on board, it's not going to make any money in theaters. And if it goes online, video pirates will rip that shit faster than you can say "Fast and Furious." Basically, as it stands, the movie (like all of Universal's big releases) is stuck in purgatory.
So what happens now? Well, Universal has already started to backtrack. I'm no box office expert (even though I play one on this website), but my guess is Universal will fully backtrack by the time it can release movies to theaters again. AMC and Regal have all the leverage here. If Universal puts a big-release movie on VOD, and it bombs, that's a wrap. Theaters win. I don't think it will come to that, but I do think this will end with theaters getting what they want more than Universal getting what it wants. Think about it: Why would you pay $20 for one movie when you can pay about half that for a Netflix account? Especially when whatever movie you're renting will land on Netflix eventually anyway.
(Update: Well, maybe I was wrong!)
I can't see myself ever doing that, but I love going to the theater because at the theater, you're not just paying for the movie but also for the experience. It's the same reason I'm happy to pay a cover charge at my favorite bars, and it's not something easily replaced. Movies, to me, feel like less of an escape when you watch them at home. They can be good, even great, but they're not the same.
I'm happy theaters are standing up for themselves. Maybe you disagree. If you do, let me know why. I'd love to hear it.
Now that we're all caught up on the tea, let's get comfortable and dive into this week's selections.
“Babylon Berlin” (2017-present)
Netflix, rated TV-MA, 28 episodes, 21 hours of content
Before “Babylon Berlin,” it had been a while since I felt as strongly about a TV show. Years, at least. I watch shows and enjoy them, of course, but for a program to wholly capture my heart like the best films do, it has to be a rare beast, one that combines dazzling visuals with complex characters, spunky dialogue and a plot that can’t be figured out after a handful of episodes.
Leave it to a show set in 1920s Germany to bring something new to the table.
“Babylon Berlin,” the most expensive production in German television history, has been a big hit overseas since its inception, but recently found an audience in North America thanks to Netflix. It has a lot of plot threads — it has been compared by some to “Game of Thrones” for its pure sprawl — but at its heart, it is a show about the dangers of ignoring a roaring, hateful political tide until it is too late. (I don’t know how they expect modern-day viewers to relate to this, but try anyway I guess!) Within that is commentary on the effects of war on the human psyche, a search to solve a blackmail mystery, the testing of pseudoscience and dancing. Not as a plot device. Just watching people dance. It’s great.
(One of) our main protagonists is Gereon Rath (Volker Bruch), a Cologne vice squad detective who arrives on the scene in Berlin to investigate a blackmail case involving Cologne political figures photographed in, uh, uncompromising positions, if you know what I mean. Rath is a sharp mind, but effects from fighting in WWI have left him with full-body tremors he requires strong medicine to suppress. He’s mentored in Berlin by veteran vice detective Bruno Wolter (Peter Kurth), a good detective,but one with, perhaps, a slimy side.
Then there is the show’s shining light — to me, anyway — Charlotte Ritter (Liv Lisa Fries), a young woman living with her extended family in a cramped apartment. She’s expected to provide for her family, so by day she does menial tasks for the police department, and by night she does something a little less by-the-books in the basement of the Moka Efti, a popular variety theater. Lotte, as everyone calls her, has dreams of being a homicide detective, dreams she pursues on her own time even though people keep telling her she won’t make it in a field dominated by men.
Eventually, Gereon, Bruno and Lotte, alongside others, get caught in a case much bigger than any of them expected, one involving poison gas, family treasure, a stolen train and Russian revolutionaries. This is where the second wave of characters comes in, led by Alexey Kardakov, a respected violinist and the leader of the Red Fortress, a group dedicated to taking down Joseph Stalin. Then there is his lover and second-in-command, Svetlana Soroka (Severija Janušauskaitė), and a German steel magnate named Alfred Nyssen (Lars Eidinger), who you can just tell is up to know good by looking at his face.
There’s more characters, but I’m afraid if I name them all, you’ll close this tab out of fear and never think about “Babylon Berlin” again. Trust me, the show does a great job of making everything clear in the end, even if it is slightly overwhelming at first. You know that feeling you get when a friend from one area of your life meets a friend from another, completely separate area of your life? You get that feeling a lot on this show, when storylines criss-cross and mysteries are revealed.
And did I mention the dancing? (NSFW, and turn on subtitles unless you speak German.)
"Babylon Berlin" can get dark, especially when depicting real-life tragedies like the Blutmai riots of 1929, but it is also a lot of fun. It's a nice reminder that TV doesn't have to sacrifice depth for entertainment or vice versa, and it might be your new addiction.
"Sing Street" (2016)
Vudu, rated PG-13, 106 minutes
Set in 1980s Dublin, Ireland, “Sing Street” is about a boy and a girl and a band. The boy is Conor, or “Cosmo” (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo). When he’s not getting bullied at school, he’s learning about cutting-edge music from his older brother, Brendon (Jack Reynor), or listening to his parents’ marriage fall apart.
The girl is Raphina (Lucy Boynton). Cosmo meets her walking home one day. She’s older than him and exponentially cooler, so Cosmo decides to woo her by telling her he’s the singer of a band, and she would be perfect to star in its next music video. Either out of sincere interest or pity, Raphina agrees to star in it. It might be a mix of both: Raphina is trying to start a modeling career of her own and dreams of becoming a star in London.
The exchange only leaves Cosmo with a few issues to work out — small things like forming a band, writing a song and filming said video. That band becomes the band, the titular Sing Street, and off we go.
The most important criteria for a music movie is getting the music itself right, and “Sing Street” absolutely does. The songs Cosmo and his band create are legitimately great, and I listen to them often. Not a surprise because they were written by, among others, Gary Clark, Glen Hansard and Adam Levine — yes, he’s a good songwriter when he tries, I promise. Other than the original songs, the soundtrack is filled with bangers from bands including Duran Duran, The Cure, Hall and Oates and Metallica.
(This is also probably why it has been turned into an actual hit musical.)
Outside of the music, this is a film about chasing dreams no matter the obstacles in your way. It’s a film that could easy fall on the wrong side of the cheese line, but instead Director John Carney tightrope walks it to perfection. I would be lying if I said the film’s ending hasn’t had me wiping my eyes each time I have watched it.
It’s also weirdly inspiring as someone who creates art. (Binge Blog is art, I don’t care.) “Sing Street” makes me want to finish the five novels I have started and abandoned while telling my haters to take a nap/generally go away. Or, as the movie says: “This is life. Drive it like you stole it.”