A lot has seemingly happened since the last time we checked in with Netflix. Most importantly they recently got into an epic battle with Cannes over the film festival’s decision to disqualify any film from being in competition that did not have a planned theatrical distribution. This resulted in Netflix pulling all of its movies from the festival. It was the rare battle in which both sides came out looking worse as Netflix did nothing to improve its reputation as a wholesale destroyer of cinematic norms while Cannes and its allies look increasingly look like crotchety traditionalists screaming at the upstart kid to get off their lawn. Of course there is more than a little hypocrisy in Cannes and their critical allies claiming that Netflix’s approach is not “cinematic” when something like Twin Peaks: The Return, a highly episodic TV show, gets crowned best “movie” of the year by Cahiers du cinéma – the premiere film critic magazine in France (U.K.’s Sight and Sound magazine had Twin Peaks at #2).
And as it always seems to happen I find myself sitting on the fence on this particular battle. On the one hand, yes I do believe almost religiously in the power of cinema and I will always choose to see a movie in the theatres whenever I get a chance to do so. The thought that most of the original movies Netflix releases won’t ever get a chance to be seen in a theatre environment is a shame. In some cases it is downright ludicrous as in the case of the recent release Kodachrome which explicitly states that it was filmed in 35mm film but will never be seen in that format and will be watched mostly on phones around the world.
And yet, there is something incredibly outmoded about the way movies are currently distributed by any studio not named Netflix. In the case of the Cannes dispute, the issue came down to an arcane French law in which a movie shown in a theatre is not eligible to be on a streaming platform until three years after the initial release. The ridiculousness of this rule allowed Netflix to claim some high ground, but even in North America there is the undeniable sense that current distribution models are increasingly becoming outdated. I’ve already commented about the increasing cost of going to the movies, both from a financial and more importantly time commitment standpoint in previous posts so I won’t repeat it here. But it seems apparent that with the plethora of other entertainment options that we are increasingly allowed to sample before committing to them that individual movies have to pass a higher threshold of quality or familiarity before the masses are going to show up in the theatres for them. The movie theatre is going to exclusively become the domain of the safe and marketable bet because the crowd of people who are going to take a chance on an unknown theatrical release is going to become exclusively composed of cinephile nuts like me.
In the meantime apart from Cannes, there has been some increasing rumblings about the Netflix’s actual distribution model. We are less than half-a-year into 2018 and already close to forty movies have debuted on Netflix while by contrast the most active regular studio Warner Bros. have debuted nine. More troublingly most of these movies are horribly promoted on Netflix’s own system where they simply appear on the service with little fanfare, only appearing on the front pages of its website whims of its opaque algorithm. Even when their movies gain positive press like the Oscar-nominations for Mudbound or the momentous Oscar win for documentary Icarus you would be hard-pressed to see Netflix make any note of those achievements on their own site. Apart from the very splashy The Cloverfield Paradox the average filmgoer is going to be hard-pressed to name a single Netflix movie released this year.
This is a problem. It is one thing for Netflix to argue that traditional distribution methods are outmoded and to want to disrupt that system. It is quite another thing for Netflix to bury the projects it does have, even unintentionally. It shouldn’t have to rely exclusively on word-of-mouth (and the works of critics like me) to promote its movies especially when it literally also owns the platform with which to promote the projects of filmmakers. Filmmakers, especially the indie kind that Netflix primarily deals with, require exposure in order to get their next projects financed. The fact that it takes me three clicks to even get to a browsable list of Netflix’s original programming (where it still isn’t immediately obvious which projects are television series and which are movies) and a further two clicks to find out the director of a particular Netflix movie cannot do anything but eventually harm the filmmakers.
What makes this incredibly frustrating is that Netflix, more than any other studio, has the film catalogue to truly be a disruptor of the film industry. Their rate of releases mirrors that of an old-school Hollywood studio but their output has a ridiculous amount of diversity to it. This is a studio in which Will Smith and Adam Sandler stand side-by-side with auteurs like Werner Herzog, Alfonso Cuaron, Bong Joon Ho, and even Orson Welles. It has acquired and produced more films by minority directors and female directors than any of the major studios and puts those studios to shame. It acquires movies from South Korea, Japan, France, Germany, and India among others. It has a robust documentary catalogue that easily places the studio as an industry leader in that department. Yes, there is a question of whether there is a good enough consistent quality to the films Netflix acquires and produces but like its excellent TV-show department, it can only be a matter of time before they figure that piece out. Overall Netflix has all the makings of being a true powerhouse and yet they are let down by their stubborn determination not to promote the movies they do have in a way that gets into the public consciousness. Until then, I will do my best in this ongoing series to highlight some of their projects which should almost definitely be available to any of you to watch at the click of a button:
MUTE (2018) dir. Duncan Jones
The news that Duncan Jones’ newest sci-fi flick was going to come to Netflix was cause for excitement. His past efforts in Moon and Source Code hinted at a true sci-fi auteur in the making and though his big budget video-game adaptation Warcraft was more or less a disaster, the feeling was that a move back to indie sci-fi would find him on sure ground again. Unfortunately Mute is nothing short of a disaster. In the near future a mute Amish bartender (yes, you read that right) finds out that his girlfriend, who is a cocktail waitress at the strip bar where he works, has disappeared. His quest to find her leads him deeper and deeper into an increasingly dystopian society filled with black market cybernetics, robot prostitutes, and underground surgeries. The movie is vibrant and beautiful to look at, but it is also all over the place. It just seems like Jones ran through a random adjectives generator to come up with his character descriptions which is how you end up with a gay murderous paedophilic surgeon and a gender-fluid geisha pimp among others. The movie has all the superficial zaniness of a Luc Besson flick but none of the tongue-in-cheek humour. In fact Mute is altogether humourless and self-serious, which simply adds to the ridiculousness of the end product. With this disaster of a movie Duncan Jones is quickly venturing closer to M. Night Shyamalan territory than to being the sci-fi auteur heir-in-waiting his early career made him out to be. Here’s hoping he turns it around.
PSYCHOKINESIS (2018) dir. Yeon Sang-Ho
In an age of ridiculously epic superhero films that literally takes place across the universe there is something strangely refreshing about a tale of a superhuman as intimate and small as Sang-Ho Yeon’s Psychokinesis. Instead of facing a universe-ending threat our hero Seok-Heon (Ryu Seung-Ryong) is mostly concerned with corrupt real-estate developers and the people our hero protect are merely the small business owners standing between evil big business and its soulless duty-free shopping centre. The movie is thematically similar to Yeon’s previous work, the zombie-thriller Train to Busan, in that he expertly weaves all the thrills of a genre-film as a smokescreen for what is instead a moving domestic affair as one of the small-business owners in question is Seok-Heon’s estranged daughter Roo-Mi (Shim Eun-Kyung). While the genre action is a little bit generic (and looks a little cheap when compared to his previous work), it is this emotive drama between daughter and father that provides the main narrative weight and separates it as something altogether new in the increasingly over-saturated superhero film market.
FIRST MATCH (2018) dir. Olivia Newman
The opening shot of this movie is suggestively transcendent as articles of clothing seemingly float in slow-motion against a sun-kissed sky. That they immediately land on the earth at the feet of Monique (Elvire Emanuelle) as her foster mother is in the process of extricating Monique from her life suggests the movie’s concerns might be more earthy. The troubled Mo is your stereotypical foster child – distant, brash, guarded, and unwilling to be vulnerable enough to be loved. This changes when she bumps into her recently released ex-con father Darrel (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II). Knowing that he used to be a great high-school wrestler, Mo enlists in her schools wrestling team where her raw talent and pedigree quickly establishes her as one of the strengths of the team and with her rising profile, the attentions of her father. That her father is mostly interested in monetizing her talent and that she is so vulnerably drawn to her only family member out of a desperate need for love drives most of the drama and tragedy of this story. It’s beats are familiar and as a result it’s surprises are few. Yet this intimate and often brutal portrait of a wounded girl coming-of-age is a competent piece of filmmaking, frequently compelling thanks to Emanuelle’s magnetic presence, and an assured coming out party not only for Emanuelle’s but for first time director Olivia Newman.
MANHUNT (2017) dir. John Woo
After spending the better part of a decade directing historical epics, Manhunt finds John Woo returning to familiar ground. The plot of the movie is hardly the point as Woo weaves a ridiculously over-the-top tale about a lawyer wrongly accused of murder and the effort to clear his name. This is because as with most of his great romantic-action movies like The Killer and Hard Boiled, the plot is merely an excuse for Woo to throw as many hyper-intensive balletic action sequences as he possibly can in the runtime allotted, with each increasingly over-the-top sequence them putting other modern action choreographers to shame. Matching the over-the-top action is the ridiculous level of melodrama stuffed into this movie, showcasing Woo simultaneously at his best and his worst. Fans of Woo’s earlier movies are going to find much to love in this movie, even if this is far from his best work (first-timers would do well to try and find his earlier movies with Chow Yun-Fat before diving into this one).
1922 (2017, dir. Zak Hilditch)
1922 is a classic example of a strong narrative concept that just does not have the legs to justify its runtime. Adapted from the Stephen King novella of the same name, it serves as a confession Will James (Thomas Jane) as he retells the story of a crime he committed many years ago. The story is very much reminiscent of Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart” not just in basic plot but also in tone, as the movie’s scares are much more existential and slow-burning than traditionally terrifying. And as the centre of this tale, Jane is chillingly effective as the quietly lethal and conniving patriarch of his family, and the early scenes that focus on him and his family all the way up to his eventual crime is the best part of the movie. This section easily lands the movie into somewhere around the middle of Stephen King adaptations (there are many, many not-so-good ones) but the movie quickly runs out of steam after James commits his murderous act as we slowly circle to the film’s inevitable conclusion. Undoubtedly this story would have worked better as part of an anthology (and I would genuinely tune-in if Netflix decided to pull off something like that).