There is such an abundance of great new content on streaming services that I am having a hard time keeping up. I did not expect that I would put The Last Blockbuster in the “great content” category, but this fun little documentary provided me with one of my most satisfying entertainment experiences so far this year.
Perhaps the documentary succeeds because the nostalgia factor is so strong. Streaming on Netflix (ironically enough), The Last Blockbuster tracks the rise and fall of the video store while profiling the last remaining Blockbuster in the world, a family run business in Bend, Oregon. Interspersed with interviews from Blockbuster insiders and employees of the Bend Blockbuster is commentary from actors and comedians with ties to the video store, including Kevin Smith, Ione Skye, Jamie Kennedy, and Adam Brody. Some are funnier than others and Doug Benson should have been trimmed. That’s my only real complaint.
Watching this movie brought back so many good memories of going to Blockbuster on Friday nights with my family or my best friend to pick movies for the weekend. From the actual smell of the stores to the dynamics of choosing a movie to rent, this documentary gets into what was so great about Blockbuster and what we have lost with the rise of streaming services. The added treat is that the manager of the last Blockbuster, Sandi Harding, is fun to watch at work and genuinely seems like a great boss. By the end of the movie, you too will be rooting for the little Blockbuster that could.
The Last Blockbuster was directed by Taylor Morden and written by Zeke Kamm. It runs 1 hour 26 minutes and is unrated.
On a much more serious note, over on Hulu you can see Andra Day in her Oscar-nominated performance as Billie Holiday in The United States vs Billie Holiday. The film focuses on the Federal Department of Narcotics case against Holiday, led by Harry Anslinger (Garret Hedlund), and investigated halfheartedly by Agent Jimmy Fletcher (Trevante Rhodes), whose personal relationship with her compromises his work. Really, Anslinger is after Holiday to get her to stop singing her haunting song about lynching, “Strange Fruit.” He’s just using the War on Drugs as cover.
Day is incredible as the talented, troubled Billie Holiday. Her performance alone makes the film worth seeing. Everything around Billie Holiday in this movie is outstanding, from the performances of her entourage to the wardrobe, hair, and makeup. Naturally, the music is great too.
Conversely, the “villain”—Harry Anslinger—is very poorly developed and I think that detracts from the narrative arch. Granted, what Anslinger does is not sympathetic and I cannot imagine a way in which the film could make his motives reasonable. Even still, both the writing of his character and the performance are very one note and dull, so the conflict focuses more on Holiday’s drug addiction. As a result, much of the first half of the movie drags.
About halfway through, there is an incredible, very graphic sequence that gets to the heart of why “Strange Fruit” was so important, but also might make you want to vomit. From this harrowing turning point, the story picks up steam and the movie hits a groove stylistically.
The United States vs Billie Holiday follows a recent trend for biopics to focus on one event or thread of a figure’s life and draw in their past experiences as they relate to that theme. For example, One Night In Miami focuses on that one night, but brings in other events in the characters’ lives as needed. This movie successfully tells Billie Holiday’s story while really focusing on the toll that drugs and racism took on her. As much as I think the film could have had at least twenty minutes cut and been better for it, I also think that the thematic focus creates a poignant and timely picture of Holiday’s life.
The United States vs Billie Holiday was directed by Lee Daniels and written by Suzan-Lori Parks, based on the book Chasing the Scream by Johann Hari. It runs 2 hours 10 minutes and is rated R for nudity, sexuality, language, graphic depictions of drug use, and violence.