Wednesday, December 9, 2020

Staying In: SONGBIRD

Is the first movie made during the coronavirus epidemic of 2020 exploitative bad taste filmmaking? How could it not be? Although I'd argue it's always too soon for a bad movie, and never too soon for a good movie inspired by a current event, given how impossible it appears for the worst of us to take this crisis seriously, or do even the smallest of mitigation steps, it might be hard to watch a pandemic lockdown thriller which has a scene wherein the main romantic couple is about to be kept apart by draconian quarantine rules and the guy shouts “to hell with the rules!” That’s the gist of Songbird, a cheap genre effort filmed over the summer. It gets its narrative engine out of people who’ll do anything to be together or scrape by in the face of dystopian stay-at-home orders, which include quarantine camps where those who break the rules are sent to die. It’s set in (an imaginary, one hopes) fourth year of COVID, where the world seems abandoned and pretty much done for. Yet, if only for the sake of thriller mechanics, hope might be in there some where. Two young folks — a delivery guy (KJ Apa) and a (totally understandable) shut in (Sofia Carson) — are in love over FaceTime and hope to get black market immunity passes. His boss (Craig Robinson) buys them from a wealthy sleaze (Bradley Whitford), a lucrative enough idea that the rich man’s worried wife (Demi Moore) is almost okay with his affair with a live-streamer (Alexandria Daddario). The latter’s nonstarter music career has a fan in a wheelchair bound vet (Paul Walter Hauser) who moonlights as an amateur drone pilot. Meanwhile, a nefarious garbage man (Peter Stormare) leads HAZMAT troops for the department of sanitation. 

The whole thing is pretty predictable as far as it goes, with writer-director Adam Mason borrowing cynical topicality to add some interest to a typical low-budget, here-today-gone-tomorrow picture of this size and type. It doesn’t not work. There are some cleverly imagined touches — an app that scans for fever and uploads the stats to the health department; a UV disinfectant box for deliveries — that are fine extrapolations on worries from half a year ago (my, how so much has changed, even though so little has changed). The cast is talented enough to imbue some urgency to their pro-forma plights. And the filmmaking has an occasional charge of rudimentary chase-scene excitement. Just as often, though, it’s a clunky little picture. I found myself admiring it mostly as a series of logistical puzzles, noting how the film has been written and filmed to avoid scenes with more than one actor, and even scenes with a few generally only has one unmasked, or has one in an over-the-shoulder shot that could’ve easily been fudged. So it’s boring. Isn’t that ultimately more disappointing? If it was more exuberantly bad taste, it would’ve at least been something more than its destiny as a title mentioned at least in passing in every history of this time in showbiz.

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