Since we last checked in with Netflix six months ago, there has been an undeniable shift in the steaming service’s movie strategy. Up to a few months ago, Netflix’s output of original movies seemed to primarily comprise of mid-budget movies that used to be the bread-and-butter of the Hollywood box office but have gotten squeezed out or to movies that could charitably have been bargain bin or “straight-to-DVD”. Even their “prestige” picture picks like Mudbound, Okja, Oscar-winning documentary Icarus were niche movies with long-shot awards contention than anything approaching conventional success.
But this year’s Netflix-Cannes kerfuffle seems to have indicated that Netflix is no longer content to be a minor player in the film economy but in fact intends to directly compete as a major movie studio itself. Nowhere is this more clear than in the calibre of director they seem to have recruited recently. Cinephiles will recognize the names Tamara Jenkins (Savages, Slums of Beverly Hills), David MacKenzie (Hell or High Water), Gareth Evans (The Raid), and Jeremy Saulnier (Blue Ruin, Green Room). But in recruiting the Coen Brothers, Martin Scorsese, Alfonso Cuaron, and having the audacity to release a 40-year old unfinished film from Orson Welles that the streaming service signals that they have come to compete with the big boys.
Of course recruiting world-class directors and producing great movies are not automatic givens. So here is my look at the first wave of what could be the emergence of Netflix as a major player in the film world:
THE BALLAD OF BUSTER SCRUGGS dirs. Ethan and Joel Coen
Life is solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short. And then you die. Sometimes this is funny, most of the time it is not. This sentiment perhaps best epitomizes the larger thesis of the Coen brothers’ work and this latest effort, the anthology Western The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, might be the purest distillation of their central theme.
This movie is also a long con. It starts out with Buster Scruggs (Tim Blake Nelson), a singing cowboy whose slack-jawed congeniality disguises his truly lethal gunslinging skills. He is a wanted “misanthrope” – a title he takes great issue with, even as his actions seem to confirm his reputation. With a trail of bodies that would make Anton Chigurh blush, he meets his end in an unexpectedly comical but entirely fair way. He is quickly replaced by James Franco’s hapless cowboy in the second segment, who is basically a victim of the best darkly humorous joke setup in the Coen brothers’ canon since Fargo which lulls the viewer into thinking that this is going to be the Coens at their humorous best as they playfully explore the inevitability of death.
Then the third segment hits like a ton of bricks with Liam Neeson as a brutally cruel traveling showman and a limbless man whose chief skill is memorizing and reciting long passages of literature (played by Harry Melling, of Harry Potter Dudley fame) as his chief draw. His ever dwindling popularity inspires new meaning to the term “ruthless business decision”.
From there the shadows slowly lengthen subtly through the next two segments, first in “All Gold Canyon” (adapted from a Jack London story) where Tom Waits plays a grizzled prospector whose seems to derive his pleasure more in the process of getting gold rather than attaining wealth himself. “The Gal Who Got Rattled” meanwhile is arguably the strongest segment, finding the Coens in comfortable ground as they weave a tale stacked with irony. Starring Zoe Kazan might just be their best performer, it is also the saddest of the stories.
And from there we arrive at the final tale “The Mortal Remains”, where a pair of bounty hunters regale their fellow stagecoach travelers with their philosophies of life and death, all while their latest victim lies strapped to the top. It is here that the Coens drop the hammer, revealing the true morbidity of these tales and forcing a ghastly reevaluation of everything we have seen so far. Without even realizing it, what once was brightest day has turned into darkest night. It is a bravura move that only the Coen brothers could have the audacity for, and probably have the capacity to pull off.
The Coens have long mused on the nature of fate on people who supposedly cherish free will. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs suggests maybe there is little hope escaping our nihilistic fate. The coachmen stops for no one after all.
THE OTHER SIDE OF THE WIND dir. Orson Welles
Orson Welles has always been an enigmatic director whose chief gift is in being reactionary to the larger world around him. This makes it especially hard to evaluate The Other Side of the Wind, Welles’ famously unfinished last film that has finally seen the light of day. Every previous Welles’ film has had the benefit of being seen and interpreted first in its contemporary context. Most of us however have to merely imagine what the world was like 40-years ago to try and understand what Welles was reacting to.
Fortunately for us, the folks at Netflix seem to have anticipated this problem by providing us with the documentary They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead which details the latter half of Orson Welles’ career and more importantly provides helpful background information to the events surrounding the creation of The Other Side of the Wind. While I am usually loathe to suggest watching a different movie to understand another movie, in this case this backdrop is completely necessary to understanding why The Other Side of the Wind not only works, but might be an instant classic.
The movie is basically divided into two section: One is a documentary-type story that details the last day of a director’s life. This second is a film-within-a-film, the director’s last which has had production broken down due to a lack of funds. It is a mockumentary made at least a decade before any other film attempted the form, and is a startling autobiographical tale to the real-life troubles Welles’ himself faced in making this film.
John Huston plays the film director Jack Hannaford, as obvious a stand-in for Welles as any. Hannaford is famous, reclusive, and finds himself on his 70th birthday being lauded as a living legend but strangely unable to find someone willing to pony up the cash to finish his film. He shows footage from his so-called comeback picture “The Other Side of the Wind” mostly in the vain hopes that it might open someone’s coffers at this party. Hannaford’s film is at once a tribute to the daring new Hollywood of the 1970s while being a slight mockery of the eras pretensions. Together these two elements create a movie that is as acerbic as it is playfully witty. And as with most of Welles’ films, it is fittingly incapable of playing by standard Hollywood storytelling conventions and is all the better for it.
PRIVATE LIFE dir. Tamara Jenkins
Rachel (Kathryn Hahn) and Richard (Paul Giammati) are forty-somethings consumed by a single quest. They desperately want to become parents and are worried that they have missed the boat. She is barely fertile, he has one testicle and it appears to be blocked. They have paid a small fortune, dragging other family members into their financial burden, trying to conceive a baby. They have also in desperation tried the path of adoption, only to have their hearts broken on the way. Though their marriage is a happy one, their quest is all-consuming and it is an open question between them if they even want a child at this point. But too much has been sacrificed to simply give up now.
This should be a sad story, and sometimes it is. This shouldn’t be a funny story. But often it is. The reason why the sad and funny intermingle so well is because director Tamara Jenkins has crafted a thoroughly human story that is willing to embrace both the tragic and absurd sides of the Rachel and Richard’s journey. This should come as no surprise as Jenkins previously pulled this feat with 2007 Savages where the central duo had to deal with how to care for the aging father to similar tragicomic effect. Similarly Hahn and Giammati are just excellent here not only in mining the humor out of the depressing medical quest for fertility, but in doing so from their place of sadness so that this movie becomes a tender invitation for empathy for an often private journey and pain (of course Richard’s experience extracting a sperm sample, and a bathroom-cleaning related Rachel rant are among the funniest things I’ve seen this year).
The third piece to the puzzle is their open-eyed and opinionated niece Sadie (Kayli Carter) who, finding herself adrift in college while trying to become a fiction writer, crashes at Richard and Rachel’s apartment and ends up agreeing to donate some of her eggs to the couple. The movie, in an almost Arrested Development-type way bends over backwards explaining to us how Sadie is not Richard’s biological niece. Biological complications aside however it sets up the rest of the movie where we journey with Sadie, who is young and naive enough to believe fervently in the nobility of her donation, and Richard and Rachel, who are desperate enough to try anything and not notice the incredibly difficult emotional waters they are wading into.
Private Life is a tender and loving reminder that the minutiae of life that seems trivial to who are not directly experiencing it can nonetheless be overwhelming to the ones experiencing it. Infertility and impotency usually get confined to the corners of life where hushed whispers are uttered. Jenkins, with humor, sadness, and empathy, blows that conversation into the open. And while the movie hardly offers any definitive answers to these problems, it invites us to walk with Rachel and Richard and find reasons to feel their joy and sadness and to understand the bigness of their seemingly small plight. Private Life then is perhaps yet another perfect example of why Roger Ebert once called the movies an “empathy generation machine”.
SHIRKERS dir. Sandi Tan
Admittedly a documentary about the process of indie movie-making, set primarily in Singapore in the 1990s (where in that same time I was living in Kuala Lumpur, a mere three hour drive away), and featuring a bunch of nonconformist teens looking to create something brand new and inventive in a culture that shuns norm-breaking just might be the closest thing to a movie tailor-made for me. But Sandi Tan’s debut is more than just a movie for my hyper-specific interests as it is a portrait of female filmmakers who in the midst of trying to find their voice and place within the industry find their hopes and dreams crushed by one man, and their journey to reconcile and process the grief of their falling out.
Shirkers is both the name of this documentary and the title of an infamous movie that Tan and her friends were making in the summer of 1992 that was the buzz of the local film world. In a time where indie filmmaking was close to non-existent in the region, the movie was being heralded as the potential start of a new filmmaking culture in Singapore. And yet, in a move that resonates in our 2018 #MeToo landscape, one pathological liar and manipulator derails and sabotages the project, stealing all of the film from the crew and keeping it hidden for two decades, leaving Sandi and her friends to pick up the pieces.
Shirkers the documentary then is her attempt to finally pick up the pieces. It is an investigative documentary, but one that seems much more interested in investigating the emotional toll of the loss on her and her friends than it is in trying to piece together what actually happened. Tan starts with her childhood and her central friendship with Jasmine Ng who together forged a partnership that would spark their love of movies and send them careening on a path to shooting the accursed movie in the first place. Through a dense series of collages and clippings Tan constructs a portrait of their friendship that also doubles as a portrait of a Singapore that has long disappeared in the intervening decades of hyper-development.
Along with another close friend Sophie Siddique, they enlist Georges Cardona – a middle aged American who was a mentor and friend, to direct the picture Sandi has written and chosen to star in. And while the production is not quite an Apocalypse Now type of horror, things are decidedly off. Cardona strikes the perfect balance between being detached and controlling, seemingly the least passionate amongst all the production crew and yet the one pulling all the strings. A combination of youthful naivety and sheer willpower to get the picture made blinds Sandi from the unquestionable problems in the shoot and it is only months later, after their savings accounts had been drained finishing the film and all three of them were away overseas in University that Cardona drops the bomb that he is keeping all 70 canisters of film and disappears from sight.
Of course, slight spoiler-aside, the documentary is made partly because after two decades, the film canisters finally have been recovered and for the first time we get to see the film they shot. In one sense this is a relief as a measure of justice seems to have been meted out. But it also only highlights just how cruel Cardona’s act was as we get to witness what he stole. The film footage included here is beautiful, showcasing an art-film sensibility that would have fit in perfectly with the emergence of the Sundance Film Festival and the explosion of independent film in the early 90s in America. As Tan notes tragically, there is also a sense that the movie Shirkers would have also been ahead of its time as movies made years later like Rushmore and Ghost World both display Shirkers’ aesthetic and thematic sensibilities. The overwhelming sense you get in watching her documentary twenty years later is that Cardona, through whatever pathological emotional game he was playing, succeeded in silencing a talented voice and cutting off a promising career before it even had time to begin. This is as maddening as it is tragic.
But Shirkers is not a mere wallowing in tragedy, it is also a defiant and empowering middle-finger to this one man’s sabotage. As Sandi catches up with Jasmine and Sophie and sits them through confessionals there is the overwhelming sense that the setback of having the movie stolen from them, while in a sense impacting their lives irreparably, has not destroyed them. In their own way Jasmine and Sophie have picked up the pieces and forged them respectively into promising careers of their own. And in making this documentary and bringing it to completion, it seems that the movie functions as Tan’s own personal exorcism of the hold one man has had on her life. It is a liberating thing to watch.
OUTLAW KING dir. David Mackenzie
Rumour has it David Mackenzie lopped off close to half an hour from the movie’s runtime in an effort to save Outlaw King after the movie’s disastrous premiere at TIFF earlier this year. If that is the case I shudder to think just how bad the original movie was because as it is, the movie is a serviceable period piece that at best is an unofficial sequel to Braveheart we never wanted. Chris Pine does fine as Robert the Bruce, the Scottish rebel military successor to William Wallace who leads Scotland to victory over their English rulers, the narrative is clean and streamlined if not that innovative, while the main battle set-pieces are suitably brutal and compelling. The central problem this movie has is that in the intervening years since Braveheart came out, fantasy movies like The Lord of the Rings and the enormously successful TV-series Game of Thrones have revolutionized the medieval epic and despite Mackenzie’s efforts everything in Outlaw King seems derivative of much better epics.
APOSTLE dir. Gareth Evans
After the unprecedented success of The Raid movies – two Indonesian martial arts movies that improbably became breakout hits in North America – director Gareth Evans changes tack by trading bone-crunching violence for something more psychologically horrific instead. Thomas (Dan Stevens) is an apostate Christian missionary who infiltrates a cultic community in the Scottish isles in order to try and find his kidnapped sister. Michael Sheen as the island’s devilish and insecure cult leader is an absolute delight, and hopefully this springboards him into new villainous territory. In many ways it evokes the cult classic The Wicker Man (the original non-Nicolas Cage version) but unfortunately does not quite have the smarts to pull off the psychological horror the story requires. Apostle ends up instead in the thankless zone where it is not bad enough to be a disaster but just good enough to remind you of better versions of this film – like the aforementioned The Wicker Man or even the recent Suspiria remake.
HOLD THE DARK dir. Jeremy Saulnier
Jeremy Saulnier’s debut on Netflix is a subdued one, which is surprising given that his calling card is in providing some of the most artfully rendered violence in recent years with his cult hits Blue Ruin and Green Room. Where those aforementioned movies offer hyper-focused narratives, Hold The Dark represents Saulnier’s first venture into more expansive storytelling to mixed results. Based on William Giraldi’s novel, it finds Russel Core (Jeffrey Wright), an animal expert and an author, being sent to Alaska to investigate the presumed death of a child to a pack of wolves. From this seemingly conventional starting point, the movie quickly meanders into a mythical direction while also introducing multiple layers of religious and social intrigue to the proceedings. These moments play functionally enough but the narrative never focuses enough to offer anything other than a passing interest. It is only when Saulnier finds himself on familiar ground in an epic gun battle in the middle of the movie that he offers anything to remind us why he is one of the most exciting emerging directors. But outside of that fight however, the movie is merely ordinary and propped up more by Wright’s compelling turn than by anything inherently compelling in the narrative.