Tag Archives: Netflix original

Tell Me Who I Am

Do yourself a favour and go into this movie blind. Normally I’m a complete whore for your time and attention, and I do implore you to come back once you’ve finished, but truly, you don’t need to read this review. The movie is good, worthy of your time. Go watch it.

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When Alex is 18 he wakes up in a hospital bed and the only person he recognizes, in fact the only thing in the world he knows to be true, is that the 18 year old man sitting beside him is his twin brother Marcus. A woman claiming to be his mother brings him to a house she assures him has been his childhood home; he shakes hands with a cold man he’s told is his father. Alex has no memory of his life up until this point, knows nothing; he has to be told what a bicycle is and how to ride it – and then he doesn’t know where he’s going. The world seems scary and blank but Alex has one thing on which he can rely: brother Marcus. So after he starts to get the basics down, Alex asks Marcus about more personal questions like: who am I, really?

Is there any one person in your life who knows the entire answer to that question? The truth is, every single person who knows you knows a slightly different version of you. They see you through their own filters. You present yourself to them with your own hopes and biases about how they’ll perceive you. You may augment yourself in certain areas, you might tell little fibs about your past, or construct whole chapters of it out of thin air. Who, then, has the authority and insider knowledge to fully tell you who you are.

***Spoilers ahead

The truth is, Alex and Marcus had a terrible childhood. Terrible is too easy a word, actually. So when Alex’s memory was erased, Marcus kept it from him. He painted a lovely picture and Alex never questioned it. But Marcus found that lying to his best friend and twin would take its toll. Still, telling him the truth felt way worse than to carry on lying.

Gosh. What a choice. What a life. Not only did Marcus take on the the guilt of lying, but also the aloneness. Because that childhood, the knowledge of that childhood, was still his. And now he was alone with it. The lies were a gift to his brother Alex, but what did they do to Marcus? Now he has to pretend to not be fucked up. He has to look the other way when Alex acts lovingly toward his parents. He’s swallowing his own pain and anguish to protect his brother. But if you keep up these lies for years and years and years – how long before you start believing them? And how long before that buried dirt comes back to infect you? And when the truth surfaces, as it always does, will Alex see the lie as a gift or as a betrayal? Oof.

This documentary is presented very simply yet with great emotional impact.

Dream/Killer

On October 31, 2001, a journalist was killed in the parking lot of his newspaper. Two years later, a 19 year old man named Chuck turns himself in, confessing to the murder, and naming another man, Ryan, in the process. The police confession tapes reveal that Ryan maintains his innocence, and in fact his confusion, throughout the entire interview. Worse, they also reveal that Chuck doesn’t seem to know much about the murder either, though investigators are keen to spoon-feed him details.

The American “justice system” is an oxymoron. The system is broken and I’m not sure it’s serving anyone on either side of the bench. Perpetrator, victim, guilty, innocent, everyone’s getting fucked.

Ryan is charged with second degree murder despite there being no physical evidence. Chuck testifies in court against him, suddenly a very polished and credible witness, totally confident in details that he had no prior knowledge of. Ryan’s lawyer seems lost and incompetent. The other lawyer bullies him on the stand. The jury finds him guilty, sentences him to 40 years in prison. His family, in the stands, sobs.

There’s a certain amount of shock and numbness that I imagine comes with hearing your kid be sentenced to a lengthy prison term, knowing you’ll be dead before he gets out. Ryan’s dad, Bill, marinates in his grief for just 24 hours before realizing that if anyone’s going to save his son, it’s him. Because Bill has never wavered in his conviction that Ryan is innocent.

The justice system has washed its hands of Ryan. He’s rotting in prison, watching his youth waste away. The courts won’t have anything more to do with him. So let’s all take a minute to stop and wonder: if your life depended on your father hustling for you – would you be free, or would you be locked up? Because lots and lots of people accused of crimes don’t have loving families taking care of them. I’d be behind bars for sure. But even if you have a father in your life, does he have the time, the experience, the resources to do this? To learn the law, re-examine the evidence, walk the crime scene, track down the witnesses? Does your father have enough flex time in his job to do this, enough money in the bank account to pursue this, enough energy and persistence to do this year after year (after year after year)?

No “justice system” should rely on lay people to chase that justice. That is not a fair system. Ryan is languishing behind bars for a crime he didn’t commit and yet in many ways he is lucky: he has people who visit him, people who believe in him, people who prop hi up when he’s low. When you’re in prison, stripped of every possession, every freedom, the only way you can be rich is rich in people, rich in loved ones who will pick up that collect call from a federal institution and lend their support.

Ultimately, a documentary like this is a shock to the system. We like to exist in our little bubbles, believing that the world is relatively good, and safe. But if this can happen to Ryan, it can happen to me, or to you. The system needs fixing and we all should be motivated to see that it is. Cops who force false testimony should be fired, made examples of. Prosecutors who do shady things, including fabricating evidence and violating the Constitution, should be fired, made examples of, not promoted to judge as he was in this case. And we, as people, need to value justice above easy arrests or empty charges or wins in court. Yes, we like to believe the bad guy is off the streets, but that only works if it’s the actual bad guy, and that means doing a lot more police work – hiring the right kind of police officers, and then making sure they have the necessary resources, the necessary training, and redefining their jobs as finding the truth instead of finding someone to blame.

And here’s the worst part, guys. This documentary is dedicated to seeing Ryan set free. It is a testament to the hard work and persistence of his family. But if Ryan didn’t commit the murder, who did? There is still an innocent man who was beaten to death as he left work. His murderer is still out there. This victim has not seen justice. His case is unsolved – that’s what happens when concentrate on convictions instead of guilt. The wrong guy got sent away, his life was ruined, and terrifying, a killer has been allowed to walk among us, and possibly to kill again. So even if you’re never wrongfully arrested, we are all a little less safe when these things happen and the nightmare reality is: they happen all the time.

Bikram: Yogi, Guru, Predator

I don’t mind stretches and poses but I’ve never bought into yoga culture. I don’t like the body shaming or the forced spirituality or the merchandising juggernaut it has become. Some yogic schools of thought actually believe that yoga should be a gift to the people; teaching yoga is a seva, a blessed service, so teachers shouldn’t charge. And yet yoga studios pop up in every gentrified corner of the world ready to take hundreds of dollars from their affluent customers, with a LuluLemon around the corner ready to charge exorbitant rates for a see-through pair of pants.

Bikram Choudhury arrived in Beverly Hills (where else?) and immediately set the yoga world on fire – and some would say, created the yoga world, at least in America. He claims clients in Elvis, Nixon, Frank Sinatra, Barbra Streisand and more. He built an empire, franchising some 600 studios and embracing the nickname McYoga as some kind of distinction of honour.

Bikram was a celebrity and loved his Hollywood lifestyle. Sure his acolytes saw “red flags” and signs of “megalomania” and acknowledge that humiliation was part of the training. People were fat-shamed routinely. “The best food is no food” was a popular mantra. All part of the fun. Yoga was a cult and his followers were clearly brain-washed – some of them still today, scrambling over all kinds of logical fallacies to excuse away his transgressions, one lady basically saying they won’t say anything negative about him because thanks to him, her back bends were deeper. The man referred to himself as a blood sucker and literally told women “put a cork in your pussy, you’re not allowed to pee” and still people cover for him, “he has his own truth.” Yes, he certainly does.

This documentary covers all manner of sin in the Bikram Yoga Studio. “Separate the man from the teacher,” they said, but you’ll notice nobody says “separate Jim Jones from Peoples Temples”; I’m pretty sure we’ve agreed that everything that comes from an evil cult leader is also evil.

Were you surprised to learn that Bikram Choudhury is a sexual predator? That his yoga studios were basically an excuse to have a constant rotation of sweaty women in bikinis parade their flexibility in front of him so he could pick who to rape next. Bikram yoga was a conveyor belt feeding a hungry rapist.

And let e tell you: if anyone refers to themselves as your family who is not actually your family? Run. RUN. Normally this happens at work, and it’s almost always done to cover up some kind of abuse. They’re about to make you work weekends. Or not pay you for overtime. Do it because “we’re family” though it never EVER works both ways.

And another little hint from your friendly neighbourhood Jay: a man who shows up dressed only in a Speedo and a Rolex? Not a good guy.

It breaks my heart to see so many of his followers turn a blind eye to some really awful stuff. Bikram the man is a monster, but how many of his followers are complicit? Hundreds. Thousands. More? He has fled the country but he’s still doing teacher training and studios are still sending girls to him in Spain and Mexico. Shame on them. The only effective inoculation is information, and this documentary is a powerful dose.

Holiday Rush

The day after Thanksgiving, Rush Williams (Romany Malco) is up early like always to host his popular morning NYC radio show. At 5am he’s already fielding texts from his daughters for their Christmas lists which looks like “pony!” and “Prada bag!”. Are his kids spoiled? Well, they actually seem pretty sweet, but the four of them are used to a certain lifestyle and their expectations correspond to it. Plus, son Jamal just got into Harvard.

So it’s a really, really bad time for Rush to have lost his job, but that’s exactly what happens. Bad news waits for no one. And those kids are NOT pleased about their come down in life. As they move out of their lavish home and into the small house they grew up in, now occupied by Aunt Jo (Darlene Love), and plan for a scaled-down Christmas, dad Rush hears a lot of grumblings.

Meanwhile, Rush and his producer Roxy with the cool hair (Sonequa Martin-Green) scrape together just enough money to buy their old radio station, the one where they got their start. It’s small, but it’s theirs, an opportunity to build the show and the station they’ve always wanted. But the new owners at the old station aren’t making it easy, threatening the advertisers, hoping to turn off their lights before they play a single song.

At the risk of losing all credibility, the truth is I believe this Netflix holiday movie is a cut above. The script is almost always my biggest side of beef with these things but in the case of Holiday Rush, it’s no beef, it’s beef wellington, it’s roast beef, it’s prime rib. Settle down, Jay. Prime rib may be reaching. But it IS charming and smart, despite being written by two white dudes. And the acting is uniformly good, an impressive ensemble propped up by excellent, never obnoxious kid actors, convincing chemistry between Malco and Martin-Green, and Darlene Love is the icing on this gingerbread house, a real treat that we all deserve.

Meanwhile, Holiday Rush earns a little bit of extra integrity by addressing grief over the holidays, something so many of us deal with but often try to suppress. There’s a lot of pressure to be jolly over the holidays, but it’s a time of family, friends, and traditions which often make loved ones’ absences be felt more keenly. The truth is, grief can and must exist alongside joy. You can miss someone even as you welcome in someone new. Living, and enjoying life, is no disrespect to someone’s memory. The movie’s acknowledgement that grief can be part of a holiday normalizes it for us, gives us permission to feel two things at once and not beat ourselves up about it.

And of course there’s some heart-warming bullshit about making Christmas less consumer-y. How many Christmas movies will it take to convince us? “It’s not what you have, it’s what you have around you.” Absolutely true. But I’d also take the pony.

 

The Knight Before Christmas

We know Brooke (Vanessa Hudgens) doesn’t believe in fairy-tales because that’s what she flat-out tells a student at the very top of the movie. Making such bold and inflammatory statements practically invites the supernatural, so when a knight from 700 years ago suddenly turns up in her life, it’s pretty much her own fault.

Sir Cole (Josh Whitehouse), the transplanted knight, was just going about his 1300s life when he meets an “old crone” (not my words, believe me, and not exactly an accurate description either, even, I suspect, by 1300s relativity) in the forest who gives him a quest to be completed before midnight on Christmas Eve. Next thing he knows he’s in Ohio. In the winter. He pops up in the middle of a Christmas village where his armour seems like it might just be another merry costume, and the fair Brooke doesn’t think much of her run in with him….until she later hits him with her metal steed car and has to take him to a hospital, where his ye olde claims of identity are mistaken for head trauma.

Brooke does what any intelligent young woman would do when she meets a crazy homeless person: she invites him into her home, to stay. You have to be quite a handsome crazy homeless person to merit such an invitation, I’d imagine, armour or no armour. Only her trusty best friend (and possibly her sister?) Madison (Emmanuelle Chriqui) is the voice of reason here, but she is too easily hung up upon, if you ask me.

Meanwhile, Sir Cole (as he insists on being called) gets his 21st century lesson from – where else? – the magic picture box, ie, Netflix itself, which continues to astound me with its ability to be, um, self-referential (by my count he watches Holiday In The Wild and The Holiday Calendar…had he kept scrolling he might have run into last year’s Vanessa Hudgens holiday offering, The Princess Switch; watch for its sequel, The Princess Switch: Switched again, a real honest to goodness thing, I kid you not, in 2020).

What will happen, then, when they inevitably fall in love? I mean, these two are kneading bread together in a way that makes me blush. Guys, I must be slipping. It is WAY too early in the Christmas season (in fact, I’d argue that it isn’t even the Christmas season yet) for me to feel this benevolent toward a holiday romance. Have I gone soft as the marshmallows in my hot chocolate?

The answer may be yes: I am an ooey-gooey puddle of movie-watching goodwill and kindness. I may have lost some self-respect, I may have lost your faith, I may have to change the title of this site, but the truth of the matter is: I didn’t fully hate this movie.

American Son

Kendra and Scott are estranged; their middle of the night reunion at a police station is fraught for many reasons. Hours ago, Kendra fought with her just-turned-18 year old son, Jamal, and now he’s missing. No longer a minor, the police won’t take his mother’s anxieties seriously, but this black mama can’t help but think the worst.

Kendra (Kerry Washington) gets no where the the newbie cop (Jeremy Jordan) but as soon as her white husband (Steven Pasquale) shows up, it’s another story. But it’s not a great story. Jamal may not be missing so much as involved in some sort of incident. Details are sparse, but his car’s been pulled over by a cop and no one’s heard much since.

As they wait for a senior officer (Eugene Lee) to arrive, Kendra and Scott unravel the many tensions in their marriage – racial and otherwise.

Taking place over the course of just a couple of very tense hours, the script pinpoints the particular experience of black Americans. Scott is sure that his son’s affluent background, prestigious schooling, and privileged address are enough to insulate him from the realities on the news. But Kendra knows when cops are making split-second decisions, his skin colour is all that matters.

American Son is absolutely riveting to watch. My only complaint is that the two have so many sharp edges it’s hard to really understand how they ever could have been a couple. But it hardly matters when Washington’s on the screen, and she’s always on the screen. Her performance is astonishing, and Kendra’s frantic worry is infectious. You want, very badly, for there to be any other reason for Jamal’s absence – but in today’s America, is that even realistic?

Klaus

Jesper is supposed to be a cadet training in the royal postal academy but he’s made no progress at all. His father pulled every string to get him there but he’s squandering his chance once again. Jesper’s a spoiled brat so his father gives him a wake up call. Jesper’s being sent to Smeerensburg where he’ll have a year to establish a working postal office – he’s got to get 6000 letters mailed or he’s cut off for good.

Smeerensburg is a remote island nation known for only one thing: its intense feuds. They are so dedicated to not mingling with their enemies they don’t even send their kids to school. Postman? Don’t need one, don’t want one. These are not the letter-sending type. Which is fine because we aren’t exactly rooting for dreadful Jesper to succeed. He makes zero friends, and is particularly afraid of a reclusive woodsman named Klaus who spends his days amassing treasures he carves out of wood. When Klaus gives one to a small lonesome boy, Jesper smells potential. He can trick kids into sending letter requests for toys to woodsman Klaus, fullfilling his postage quota.

I was so confused by this message: that the Santa Claus tradition has sprung from such a selfish, mercenary place, that I rewound the movie 34 minutes just to keep better track. But I was right: Jesper manufactures Christmas. I mean sure you can say that toy companies and Coca-Cola have been responsible for this exact thing, but convention says we usually put a bit more of a heart-warming gloss on it, at least for the kids.

You can appreciate that this whole letters-for-presents thing really takes off. And not to worry: the legend of Klaus eventually brings about lots of positive changes in the town, so it’s not a horrible message for kids. It just takes its time getting there.

With excellent voice work from Jason Schwartzman, JK Simmons, Rashida Jones, Joan Cusack and more, this Netflix original eventually manages to embrace the holiday spirit and puts a bright spot in your heart. It took me a while to win me over, but eventually I realized that what concerned me first was actually its virtue: since it takes a different approach to its theme, it’s nearly Christmas cliche-free. What a marvel! Klaus rewards patience, and it breathes new life into the genre.

reclusive woodsman