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REVIEW – “Songbird”: Exploitative Pandemic Drama Highlights 2020’s Worst Demons

Hotshot filmmaker Michael Bay (Armageddon) sure as heck knows how to read a room. Or doesn’t, depending on who you’re having a factual discussion of his work with. In all his years working behind the camera, or deep in the producer’s pool like he is here, his work’s been inconsistent, but at least those familiar with his work could say it feels welcome for its time. In the case of Songbird, a hastily made apocalyptic drama with his name attached, this is the wrong time or place. Had he and director Adam Mason (Hangman) given it a year or two, waited for the crisis to die down, let the story germinate in a way akin to Contagion, Outbreak, or even Chernobyl, the result could’ve leaned more toward the compassionate and truthful.

Instead, we explore a cringe future mirroring that of the ungodly amalgamation of a Twilight Zone episode and an Asylum picture, albeit with a more modest budget, an overreliance on stock footage, and tired attempts at guerilla photography. That combined hodgepodge of an aesthetic ties down a rather thin, weightless Romeo and Juliet-like tale, between two star-crossed lovers, completely fed up with the way things have evolved into. Flash forward to 2024, the pandemic never went away, and the virus has mutated into COVID-23. Los Angeles remains under a tightly restrictive lockdown, save for the lucky few with immunity.

That’s where Nico (K.J. Apa) comes in. A courier making an honest living, hefty tips coming from affluent clients like the snobby William and Piper (Bradley Whitford and Demi Moore), he’s like many of us: ln search for a better life with girlfriend Sara (Sofia Carson). Under the wings of pit boss Lester (Craig Robinson), he’s not quite there yet. The pair have only known each other through video chats, never in person. Their dynamic is later spiced up in the worst way as her grandmother Lita (Elpidia Carrillo) is stricken with a newfound strain even deadlier than what’s been proven to kill before. We go from 0 to 100 in a hurry, with Nico needing to act, before the overbearing, mustachioed Emmett (Peter Stormare) and his cronies in the “Department of Sanitation” catch on.

The world we explore in Songbird should be one that cautions, reminding its audience the fight is still ongoing, even with a vaccine starting its lengthy rollout this week. And yet its very presence as the planet still fights with the effects of COVID-19 is nothing short of unwarranted and grossly offensive. Mason, with co-writer Simon Boyes (Misconduct), only have in their heads the desire to capture the moment while it’s still running circles in the memory. And then press down a bit too much on the fear button, reminding us of how we’ve been shaped by poor mishandling. Between inaccuracies in local media, peace maintained by a military sized operation, and technology advancing to the point where phones can register heat signatures and UV light can rid all germs, there’s much to be concerned for. Certainly, in a constructive manner, but not so much creatively.

Elsewhere, it is just a single page plot put in front of cameras in a ridiculous hurry. For a film shot just this past summer under a rushed timeframe as LA County was starting to find its footing again, its perfunctory rhythm is its own downfall. It feels too fast and too limiting; at 85 minutes with credits, that shouldn’t be too much of a shock. If only more time had been focused on building character relationships versus selling the overall timeliness of this ill-advised project. How they interconnect nearly rivals the complex web of Love Actually, though significantly muted. For lack of a better term, the cast Mason puts together here is brutally wasted here. And much of their performances work well to their strengths at one point or another. Stormare gives his best effort, but the material fails him painfully, going for an overwhelmingly flat baddie role reminiscent more of Dick Dastardly than of a legit corrupt official. Apa and Carson’s chemistry is convincing, if not a trifle striking, even if her character feels very one-note. Moore’s raspy-voiced mama bear attitude invokes a high level of cogency, even as her assumedly loyal husband proves his infidelity while smuggling black market goods. Whitford toggles from suave to just plain deprave, while intertwined with May (a lively Alexandra Daddario), a burned-out guitarist done badly by the music industry. And May finds a kindred spirit in the wheelchair-bound Dozer (Paul Walter Hauser), one of Lester’s associates handling security through active drone cameras.

We never receive enough time with these individuals, plucked from multiple books of tropes to populate Mason’s cash grab plot. Follow-through is a naughty word here as this group of lonely, anxious people move from scene to scene, starting with fake, CGI-assisted exposition, and ending with a disastrous retcon of all its tension. Even the visual style struggles to stay consistent. Jacques Jouffret (Bloodshot) makes multiple derailing camera choices, championed by the use of the aforementioned drones, and an obscene number of intimate closeups that would only have been effective if the romantic air were not so stagnant. And the editorial skills of Geoffrey O’Brien (The Tax Collector) hurt more than help an already slapdash pacing conundrum, dizzying the senses to the point of nausea.

What starts as a horrifying mindless picture of the future, essentially stays there, and doesn’t grow any more palatable when the last act gives the film its hard action stripes (thanks, or no thanks, to Bay). Mason spreads the emotional timbre thick like butter, running a wide gamut to mirror the real-life trauma of this modern pandemic. Songbird recognizes that heartache, spinning it into dimwitted disaster popcorn fodder too quickly, with no warning, consequence, or sense of a cohesive idea. Only in a year like 2020 could we see a movie that speaks to the year 2020 so indignantly, destined to be the worst film to come out of such a trying 12 months. It will be safer to stay away from this one, with mask firmly affixed. (D-; 1/5 Horns Up!)

Songbird is currently streaming on-demand; rated PG-13 for violence including some bloody images, sexual material, partial nudity, and some strong language; 85 minutes.