Netflix Round-Up (December 2017) – The Meyerowitz Stories; Mudbound; Jim & Andy; Blame!; Voyeur

The purpose of this post is self-explanatory. I take a look at some of the Netflix originals on offer and review them. Unlike some of the more obscure fare that I sometimes indulge in, these movies are instantly available to anyone who has a subscription (or mooches of the accounts of parents and friends – I’m not here to judge.) While it’s a little bit of a mixed bag this month, a couple of movies here confirm what I said last month, that Netflix is increasingly becoming a power player in the indie and documentary film market. Unfortunately they have a horrible habit of burying their own gems under their secretive algorithm, so consider this my public service to bring to light some of their better products:

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THE MEYEROWITZ STORIES (NEW AND SELECTED) (2017) dir. Noah Baumbach

I approached this movie with a little bit of trepidation because it was the first Noah Baumbach movie in ages to not feature his muse Greta Gerwig whose collaboration with Baumbach coincides directly with my increased appreciation of his work. Truth is, I needn’t have worried. The Meyerowitz Stories finds Baumbach back in familiar ground as he explores the testy relationship three adult children have with one another and their difficult father. At one level, this is an extremely specific story, about a patriarch (Dustin Hoffman) who by the fame (or lack of it) brought by his artwork and his domineering and controlling personality manages to bring out all the insecurities in his children and alienate them from one another as they struggle to take care of him. And yet, such is the skill of Baumbach that the story becomes a universal picture of family. But credit should not be given solely to Baumbach but to his tremendous cast, buoyed by Hoffman as the father Harold, Ben Stiller as his youngest son Matthew, and Adam Sandler as his older son Danny. In fact, the movie had me infuriated at Sandler’s performance because it is is just so good, and while I don’t begrudge his infantile comedies, I just don’t understand why he doesn’t take on more roles like these. If anything is slightly disappointing it is that most of the women here find themselves on the periphery of the drama, especially Danny’s sister Jean (Elizabeth Marvel) who in a heartbreaking scene reveals that she might be the most broken of them all but her tragic story is overshadowed by the more superfluous grievances of her brothers. One can’t help but imagine that there’s no way Greta Gerwig would have allowed her role to be sidelined like that. But despite this, it’s a solid entry from Baumbach and another sign that Netflix is increasingly a force to be reckoned with.

Rating: 8/10

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MUDBOUND (2017) dir. Dee Rees

Even though Mudbound is set in the Mississippi delta during the 1940s make no mistake because the movie’s concerns are entirely contemporary. An early scene finds two white sons desperately digging a grave for their father when they discover that they have dug up an old slave grave as the rains pour down and threaten to drown them in it, as appropriate an allegory for America as any. And indeed Mudbound is a movie concerned with the soul of America. It tells the story of two families, one white and one black, who find their paths crossing as they both try to make their way during and after World War II under the banner of institutionalized racism. The only ones who seem to be above the fray are the two returning soldiers Ronsel Jackson (Jason Mitchell) and Jamie McAllan (Garrett Hedlund) who spark a friendship. They return from the war to their families and to a country that neither understands their plight nor wants their own status quo to change. It is movie in which easy moralizing is eschewed in favour of a complex cast of characters who each have the ability to reveal admirable and despicable qualities, often in the same scene. This powerful and meandering epic by Dee Rees is easily the best movie Netflix has put out, reminiscent of a classic Hollywood melodrama in the vein of Grapes of Wrath while still being shockingly contemporary in subject.

Rating: 9.5/10

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JIM & ANDY: THE GREAT BEYOND (2017) dir. Chris Smith

A documentary about the behind-the-scenes goings on of a Milos Forman biopic of legendary comedian Andy Kaufman portrayed by a very-deep-in-his-role and off-the-rails Jim Carrey is the very definition of cinephile catnip. And yet though it is very much that it is also a fascinating portrait on both Jim Carrey and Andy Kaufman, and a meditation on celebrity, art, and the ecstatic and crippling effect performances have on performers. It also shows that Carrey’s best Kaufman performance did not happen in the movie but in the bizarre embodying of the role onset, and is thus one of the rare making-of documentaries that is truly just as engrossing and fascinating, if not more, than the movie it ultimately helped create. At 95-minutes, the film is brisk but dense. And because we are given not just a glimpse into that specific period in the 90s but also of Jim Carrey now (much more bearded and seemingly mellowed out) the film also is a strange mix of elation and mournfulness. His portrayal of Kaufman is obviously the pinnacle of what had up to that point been a phenomenal career. But in disappearing so deeply into the Kaufman’s personality and life, it is clear that it cost him as he lost something of himself when he came out.

Rating: 8/10

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BLAME! (2017) dir. Hiroyuki Seshita

Confession: When it comes to sci-fi based feature-length anime, I am generally like a moth drawn to a flame. The only surprising thing about this review is that it took me this long to check out Netflix’s entry into the genre. Unfortunately despite the shiny veneer of the film’s visuals there really isn’t a lot to interest me, let alone draw new fans into the genre. Blame! is a feature length movie based on the manga with the same name which already places the movie on shaky ground as it forces about five years worth of material, with all its world building and character development, into a 100-minute package and expects us to care. The setting is unique enough as it tells the story of a dystopian future where machines have become self-aware and are constructing massive cities that are constantly expanding. The byproduct is that they have rendered human beings unnecessary and threatening and thus seek to eliminate them. Our heroes then are a band of humans who live on the outskirts and do their best to dodge the robots as they try to find food and survive. It’s all typical sci-fi anime fair, and the true highlight is that the CGI-animated visuals are sharp and eye-catching. Unfortunately the plot is pedestrian and we are never given much reason to care about the stock characters who occupy the film. The end result is a vacuously entertaining sci-fi action romp that is a fine diversion for anime fans but that I’m sure I’m going to forget about the instant I’m done writing this review.

Rating: 5/10

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VOYEUR (2017) dir. Miles Kane and Josh Koury

In a case true case of documentary inception, the film is not so much about the case of Gerald Foos who bought and converted a motel for the specific purpose on spying on its inhabitants. Neither is the documentary primarily about journalistic icon Gay Talese and his quest to uncover this story. Instead the film, when it is about anything interesting at all, seems to be more focused on the process of documenting the fallout from this salacious story being made public and the effect publicity has on Talese and his subject Foos. There is one moment late in the film where Talese and Foos are in a face-to-face conversation and poignantly Talese takes issue with the line of questioning the documentary crew wants to ask Foos and he goes on a rant about how the mere presence of cameras manipulates the proceedings and forces people to act differently than if the cameras were absent. He calls into question the validity of the idea of cinema veritas and that exchange is fascinating, thought-provoking, and something I would have loved to explore more. Unfortunately the filmmakers here don’t seem to be terribly interested in the substance of that exchange, instead preserving it because the outburst makes good TV and by doing so inexplicably make Talese’s point for him. So instead what we are left with is a sort-of-interesting take on the process of journalism and a perfunctory presentation of the salacious story at the centre but not much else.

Rating: 6.5/10

 

 

 

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