Tag Archives: what to watch on Netflix

Wakefield

Howard Wakefield is a cruel man possibly in the throes of a nervous breakdown – but let’s not let that excuse him. In a fit of selfish pique, he one day decides to leave his wife and kids – only not leave them in the traditional sense, but rather he decides to disappear without telling a soul. Which leaves his wife and daughters devastated, but not devastated enough, according to Howard, who in fact has not actually left but is hiding out in the garage so he can more effectively spy on his grieving family.

It’s not as creepy as it sounds – it’s way, way creepier. Wakefield is a difficult movie to watch because Harold is a nasty soul impossible to forgive. He talks to us, the audience, as if we can relate, but no Harold, we can’t. He has everything he ever wanted – ever Wakefield_Mingasson_2060.CR2cheated in order to get, but when he finds that it’s not enough, he doesn’t just abandon it, he makes it into a game, one that his family can never win because they don’t even know they’re playing, but even if they did, the deck isn’t just stacked against them, the rules are impossible. It’s not really his family that’s the problem – it’s Harold’s own dark, empty soul. And it’s terrifying to get glimpses of it as he spends months becoming a feral creature up in the attic of his detached garage. He risks starvation and exposure just to carry out this cruel little experiment. Is he missed enough? Grieved enough? His absence respected enough? No one can ever measure up – but Harold himself conveniently escapes his judgement.

Harold is brilliantly played by Bryan Cranston, which makes him riveting, but all the more loathsome to watch. But really it’s his wife who’s the most compelling – we see and experience her only through Harold’s narrow focus. Jennifer Garner has the difficult task of animating her, a woman who can never truly be real to us, even if we do project our own anguish and frustration on to her. I can’t say I enjoyed this film; it’s a bit dull and uneventful, but more than that, it’s just detestable. Harold is an anti-hero incapable of redemption. But there are two fine performances and ideas about marriage and identity that will challenge the least of us. Who are we really – are we fully knowable to our partners? And do we all have secret garage moments?

 

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Jim & Andy

The official title of the documentary is Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond – Featuring a Very Special, Contractually Obligated Mention of Tony Clifton and it’s ‘about’ how Jim Carrey became Andy Kaufman in order to portray him in the 1999 movie Man in the Moon.

Andy Kaufman was a comedian who defied definition. There wasn’t and hasn’t been anyone like him before or since; Kaufman existed outside the normal conception of stand-up comedy. For a lot of people he was simply too much – so who better to play him than this generation’s over the top comedian, Jim Carrey?

Having watched the documentary, it’s hard to decide who’s crazier. Maybe Andy MV5BMjM3OTY1OTAxNl5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwMTI0MTUxNDM@._V1_SY1000_CR0,0,674,1000_AL_Kaufman just didn’t give a fuck – but Jim? The documentary has a tonne of footage from the set of the movie, which was filmed 20 years ago. A documentary was planned at the time (shot by an old girlfriend of Andy’s) but Universal pulled the plug, for fear that the public would discover their beloved Jim Carrey to be an asshole. Cut to 2017 and the cat’s pretty much out of the bag. And maybe asshole’s not even the right word, but there is no one right word: he’s a space cadet, a depressive, a nonsensical philosopher. And those things are all apparent in the documentary, which also features an interview with him present day. And it’s hard to know who to detest and pity more: the Jim Carrey on the set of Man on the Moon was was never Jim Carrey at all because he was so deep in the character Jim never showed up to work, or the Jim Carrey today who at times seems downright bewildered even in his own skin. He talks about fugue states and telepathy, but bottom line, he believes that the spirit of Kaufman inhabited his body during filming. When director Milos Forman or colleagues like Danny De Vito or Paul Giamatti tried to address Jim on the set, “Andy” would be angry and\or defensive. “Andy” was always on, and always creating a ruckus. You can see how that would wear thin. The real Jim Carrey, whoever that is, has recently claimed to have had a spiritual awakening, and depending how woke you are yourself, what he spouts is either enlightened or crazy.

Either way, it’s hard to watch. And while it starts out to be fascinating in a voyeuristic, train wreck kind of way, my tolerance for it eroded before the 94 run time was up. And I’m a little uncomfortable eavesdropping on the scattered thoughts of a man who is perhaps not mentally at his best. Having battled depression for years, he has lately taken to ascribing meaninglessness to everything, coming off loopy in red carpet interviews. And he’s still staring down the barrel of a wrongful death lawsuit, accused by his dead girlfriend’s mother and estranged husband of having introduced her to hard drugs, prostitute, and at least 3 STIs. Carrey maintains the the lawsuit is simply a shakedown. I don’t know who’s right, but I do know that the whole method acting thing was nutty to begin with and is downright unhinged the way he does it. Maybe it’s the counsellor in me talking, but watching this just made me think: this man needs help.

 

Mudbound

Two soldiers, equally scarred by the war, return to their homes in the South, and to their families who await them. Their shared experience bonds them but the colour of their skin keeps them wholly separate. Rural Mississippi sucks the big one.

Jamie McAllan (Garrett Hedlund) goes home to stay with his brother Henry (Jason Clarke) and his new wife Laura (Carey Mulligan), who he basically saved from spinsterhood, because that’s what we call 30 year old unmarried women in the 1940s. The marriage is not exactly a romantic one, but she bears his children and lives in a hovel raising them while putting up with disgustingly judgy side looks from her creepy father in law (Jonathan Banks).

Meanwhile, just down the road, Ronsel (Jason Mitchell) goes back to the shack where his family is eking out a living helping out the McAllans. It’s hard to really 170123-stern-mudbound-embed1_wdoplhdistinguish between different levels of abject poverty, but there’s no question that the white McAllan family will always be in a better position than the black Jacksons (yeah, I feel weird writing that, so go ahead and feel weird reading it). Ronsel is having trouble adjusting to this country that demands that he risk his life defending it but then will spit in his eye the moment he’s back on American soil. Tough blow.

And Jamie’s only doing nominally better because his budding friendship with Ronsel is particularly irksome to his daddy, who’s a clansman. So yeah, shit gets real. This is not a pretty movie. I didn’t have much of an opinion of Hedlund before this but I found Mudbound to be well-acted: Mulligan, Mitchell, and Mary J. Blige as Mitchell’s mother are stand-outs of course, and Jonathan Banks made me want to spit nails. Into his eyeballs. Or nutsack. Or both. Rusty ones.

This movie says a lot about race and inequality but is largely unsentimental. The setting is sparse but the characters are rich, with great performances fleshing out mudbound existence. Director Dee Rees paints a stark portrait, accurate but not antiquated.

One Of Us

Oh, Facebook. You’re so full of junk. Tonight my colleague hustled Matt out of the rtrthroom because she wanted to share something for “just the ladies.” Turns out, it was a GIF she’d seen on Facebook: Name your vagina by using the last movie you watched. Of course, instead of being boring and truthful (and smart and scrolling by without comment), women (and men) are falling over themselves to come up with the best titles they haven’t recently, or ever, seen: No Country For Old Men, Lethal Weapon, Sausage Party. Feel free to take you best shot in the comments section. As for me, well, I couldn’t quite remember the name of the last movie I’d seen – only that it was a documentary on Netflix about Hasidic Jews. I was a little worried.

Turns out the title is quite ordinary: One Of Us. But the watching of it is quite extraordinary. I mean, I really love documentaries that open the door to a world I know little about, and this one definitely does that. The Hasidic Jewish community is insular, secretive, closed. And that’s exactly the way they want it. They believe it’s what keeps them safe. They believe it was the only way they could rebuild after the Holocaust, and maybe they have a point. But what it means today is that the community is strictly guided by “laws” written by old, male rabbis that everyone must adhere to, or be excommunicated by all the friends and family they’ve ever known. The Hasidim live as their ancient peoples lived, and you can imagine that’s not easily accomplished in 2017. Though most sects have their own particular rules, no internet and no TV is usually a no-brainer; they don’t want to be “contaminated” by secular (ie, the rest of us) society.

And don’t even get me started on the oppressive rules for women (instead, let the documentary get started, it’s quite a bit more knowledgeable than I am). One of Us gleans its knowledge from 3 ex-Hasidim who have left the community with varying degrees of success. A young woman left her abusive husband but the community won’t let her children escape with her. One man dreamed of being an actor and left for L.A., and hasn’t seen his kids since either. Another, much younger, is struggling to find acceptance in a world he knows virtually nothing about. The very existence of Wikipedia was a watershed moment for him.

The film will make you shake with rage and empathy. The courage to leave, and then to come forward, must be abundant. The consequence is ostracism of course, but there are darker threats too. Made by Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady, directors of another favourite, must-see documentary, Jesus Camp, there’s a lot of truth uncovered here. There are still some questions left unanswered though: why are these crazy unfair Orthodox courts even legal? I get religious freedom and cultural sensitivity, but what about keeping kids safe?

One of Us is well made, with well-chosen subjects. It tries to be fair and open, but mostly it just tries to engage us, the viewers, and it definitely, definitely succeeds.

Joan Didion: The Center Will Not Hold

Joan Didion: a woman I have admired and read widely for years and years and years. She’s an amazing writer, a voice of a generation, a literary journalist who went on to write plays, movies, and novels. She always had a different slant, a different take on what the world was consuming. So it was beyond time to produce a documentary that would pay homage to this fascinating, formidable woman. As Barack Obama said when he presented her with the National Medals for Arts & Humanities in 2013, “I thought you already had one of these.”

Anyway, it was about time someone demystified this iconic writer, and who better than her own nephew, Griffin Dunne, to tease the nitty gritty out of her. Having read nearly 09didion-hartman-slide-76MA-jumboevery book attributed to her name, I wasn’t sure that there would be much left for me to discover. But when Dunne asks her what it was like, in the 1960s, to have seen that 5 year old girl she once wrote about, the one tripping on the LSD her mother had given her. There’s a pause, and we mentally fill in the appropriately horrified responses, but instead she quietly says “Let me tell you, it was gold.” And that’s what made her work so riveting, her voice to incisive. She was a serious, ballsy reporter, and in a time when female reporters were rare and journalists of her ilk were unheard of.

Of course the film is a love letter; this is, after all, Dunne’s beloved Aunt Joan. And Aunt Joan is still Joan Didion, a woman notoriously strategic in her confessions. So although every word she drops is precious, it’s not overly revelatory. Her most recent works, A Year of Magical Thinking, and Blue Nights, deal with the deaths of her husband and daughter respectively. They’re a doozie to read, especially if you’re reeling in your own grief as I was a the time. They’re beautiful, gut-punchy, elegiac pieces of writing that are still entirely Joan. This documentary feels a lot like the third in the trilogy: it belongs. And it’s about Joan, inasmuch as Joan can allow it to be.

The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected)

The Meyerowitz family is fractured. Danny (Adam Sandler) is a self-described ‘extremely good parker’ with little else on the horizon. A loving dad and devoted house husband, his life is in transition now that he and his wife are separating and his only daughter is off to college. Moving in with his estranged father Harold (Dustin Hoffman) seems like an opportunity to get to know him, except it turns out that feeling’s not mutual.

Harold abandoned Danny and daughter Jean (Elizabeth Marvel) in favour of a new family when they were quite young. He’s never acted as a real father to them and even now he’s mostly only interested in what they can do for him. Not to mention the complicating factor of his alcoholic wife Maureen (Emma Thompson) who MV5BN2M5YzA2ODAtOTNmMi00MGYyLWIxYWYtY2M2NmE4ZGE1ODQ1XkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyNjAwODA4Mw@@._V1_inserts herself into cramped dynamics like she’s determined to put the Wicked back into Step Mother. Both throw out the red carpet when favoured son Matthew (Ben Stiller) makes a reluctant appearance. Harold has fostered a competitive streak between his children by different mothers but they otherwise aren’t close. So when their father’s life and career necessitate them pulling together, it’s a little awkward. Actually, it’s extremely awkward and kind of heart breaking. Because they aren’t bad people, they’ve just been starved of their father’s love and have no idea how to act like a family now that there’s no real chance that things will ever be different.

This being a Noah Baumbach work, the comedy isn’t broad, but it is damn funny. When I finished it (a Netflix original) I immediately wanted to restart it, just to catch all the amazing little asides and offhand jokes that are so casually but expertly tossed out.

Although Harold is a self-absorbed contrarian, he’s not quite despicable in the hands of Dustin Hoffman and his grizzled white beard. Adam Sandler gives a nuanced performance that’ll make you believe in him as an actor once again – and it’s been a good long while since that’s been true. Actually, there are loads of big names, some in pretty small roles, but everyone is kind of spectacular in this. Having recently had no patience for Golden Exits at the New Hampshire Film Festival, I wondered if the our film lexicon was finally full to bursting with movies about privileged white people whining about their lives. But the family dysfunction in The Meyerowitz Stories feels relatable and authentic and the characters are trying too hard to be decent people in the face of it all: I kind of loved it. It’s amazing how many years later childhood resentments and jealousies can bubble to the surface, but this is the kind of movie that makes us all feel “Same” in one way or another, and it just feels good and cathartic that we aren’t alone.

 

 

TIFF: First They Killed My Father

Angelina Jolie first visited Cambodia in her mid 20s to film Lara Croft: Tomb Raider. She fell in love with the country but having to dodge landmines made her realize how much about world history she hadn’t been taught in school. While there, she bout Loung Ung’s memoir for $2 on the street, and it changed her life.

She went back to Cambodia two years later in 2002 for her work with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. She spent time with local schoolchildren and realized that her son was in this very country. She adopted Maddox there that same year. The book she’d read always stuck with her, and she knew it was the story she wanted to tell in order for her son to know what his countrymen were like.

Loung Ung is a survivor of what we now call the Cambodian genocide. She was just a child during the deadly rule of the Khmer Rouge led by the dictator Pol Pot. 25% of the MV5BYmI4YzY3MTAtZjk1My00NmYwLTg4MTgtMDdlZjFhZjQzM2NlXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyNDkzNTM2ODg@._V1_Cambodian population died from malnutrition, forced labour, and mass murder in the time period between 1975-1979. Almost all Cambodian artists, actors, and film makers were killed during this regime, so getting the story out has been a difficulty. Cambodia’s film community had all but expired and is only now starting to recover. With Netflix fronting $24 million for this film, First They Killed My Father is the biggest movie shot entirely in Cambodia, and director Jolie was careful to use as many Cambodian cast and crew as she could (she herself in a Cambodian citizen since 2005). Some of them are genocide survivors themselves (such as producer Rithy Panh), so therapists were on standby on the set to avoid re-traumatizing the people who’d already lived through events depicted in the film. Jolie’s son Maddox worked on the film as well.

Though the film avoids showing us the worst of the gore, the threat and undercurrent of violence is still there. It sits quite heavily as we watch a young family try to survive the unimaginable, with constant reminders that death isn’t even the worst of it. But the camera lingers on the beauty of Cambodia too – particularly the lush greenery. The cinematography is pretty stunning.

Little Ung was only five when the Khmer Rouge captured Phnom Penh and all of sevel whens he made it out, and the film reflects her child’s eye view. Although there are plenty of emotionally powerful moments, there are also times when we struggle to MV5BZDcyYmUyZjItYmUyNS00OWIyLWIwZTQtOTllYWE2MDEyY2FmXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyNDkzNTM2ODg@._V1_SX1777_CR0,0,1777,937_AL_adsorb all that is happening around her, like she herself must have been at that young age. The film also engages our inner protectors: watching this little girl plant land mines and fire guns is just too much to process.

For the most part, the film’s most tragic scenes are deliberately underplayed, almost but not quite detached, because we come to understand that this story is being told in retrospect. There is a greater context but mostly the film is not so much interested in the historical facts as it is in giving the genuine experience of what it felt like to live (or die) through it. There’s no triumphant spin, no big, redeeming moment. It was a bleak time and it is painstakingly recreated through the camera’s lens. Jolie avoids any typical Hollywood ending and keeps our focus right where it belongs: on a little girl who surived.

 

Our Souls At Night

Actor-comedian Patton Oswalt lost his wife suddenly in April 2016. He was very vocal in his grief following her death so it took people by surprise when he announced his engagement barely a year later. Some were critical. I, however, wish him nothing but the best, and I’d wish the same for Sean if he were ever in the same spot. I know a little about love and grief, and how they are not mutually exclusive. I’d also never want Sean to feel lonely.

That’s how Louis (Robert Redford) and Addie (Jane Fonda) are feeling when we first meet them – lonely. Both of their spouses are long dead and they’ve each been leading pretty Fondasolitary existences up until Addie gets up the courage to ring Louis’s doorbell and invites herself in for a chat and a little proposal. Why not sleep together, she suggests. No, not sex. Sex doesn’t interest her. But the nights are long. Very long. Couldn’t they come to some arrangement? After thinking on it, he agrees, so off he goes in his best blue plaid shirt, to have a platonic sleepover with a neighbour he’s lived alongside for decades but never really known.

I’m often critical about movies starring senior citizens. So many feel demeaning, unworthy of their subjects, but I must admit, this new one from Netflix feels invigorating and authentic. Addie clearly has agency. They both have plenty to offer. Of course they’re not immune to aging but they’re also not done living, and that was fantastic to see on the big screen.

Jane Fonda and Robert Redford both accepted Lifetime Achievement awards here at the our-souls-at-night'-will-reunite-'barefoot-in-the-park'-stars-robert-redford-and-jane-fondaVenice Film Festival, in a ceremony preceding the screening of their new film. They’ve co-starred in movies before: The Chase (1966), Barefoot in the Park (1967), and The Electric Horseman (1979); this is their first in 38 years. To mark the occasion, Fonda said “It was fun to kiss him in my 20s and then to kiss him again in my almost-80s.” I have to say, it was fun for the audience, too. Yes, it’s great to see mature faces getting meaty roles, but you’re also getting a masterclass in acting. These two make it look easy. Their chemistry feels effortless.

nintchdbpict000349666861Of course, if you’re looking for classic, cheesy romance, this isn’t it. Louis and Addie are too wise for that. They have responsibilities, baggage, obligations. Kent Haruf, who wrote the novel upon which this film is based, knew a little about that. He wrote his book under a death sentence: he was 71, and he finished it just months before he died of lung cancer. The novel was published posthumously, so Louis and Addie are his legacy. Fonda and Redford would have made him proud.

This is an excellent movie from Netflix that will be available for streaming later this month.

The Sweet Life

Chris Messina plays Kenny, the world’s saddest ice cream peddler. He mopes around Chicago in his stupid black bowtie, eventually ending up on a bridge that’s perfect for throwing oneself off of. EXCEPT the bridge is a little crowded: Lolita (Abigail Spencer) is also there, and she’s feeling kind of territorial about her favourite suicide spot. But before you know it, they’re bonding over their mutual depression and the crappy therapist they have in common. They don’t call their respective suicides off, but they do decide that no death is complete without one last road trip – and aren’t the bridges in San Francisco that much nicer for hosting one’s imminent death?

The-Sweet-Life-trailer-700x300.pngSo off they drive in a stolen Mercedes. They have a cross-country adventure that only two people determined to die could possibly have: madcap, in a non-urgent way.  The script doesn’t feel compelled to follow the usual formula for a road trip movie, so it’s sprinkled with surprising pit stops and hijinks. Kenny and Lolita have nothing to lose, so anything is possible.

I usually find Chris Messina quite charming, but he’s dialed way down in The Sweet Life, playing a man longing to die. It sounds quite grim but actually Messina and Spencer manage to keep things fairly light most of the time, though I’m not sure that’s a compliment. The actors are talented enough to try to convey more than the script itself allows, but the truth is, the movie treats mental illness pretty flippantly, as if suicidal ideation is just a means to a meet-cute. It also sort of implies that their mental health problems are directly attributable to one specific person, and confronting that one person should cure them for good — right?

If you aren’t too concerned about the movie’s messaging about mental health, it’s a quirky little indie dramedy that’s a great character exercise for two fearless actors. Their struggle to connect feels real, the emotional dissonance sometimes a challenge, but The Sweet Life is not as hopeless as it sounds.

 

 

The Incredible Jessica James

Two broken hearts on the rebound: Jessica (Jessica Williams) is an aspiring playwright full of youthful energy and self-confidence; Boone (Chris O’Dowd) is recently divorced and somewhat bewildered by the dating scene.

When we first meet Jessica, I was a little repelled. She comes off brash and self-serving – not the kind of person you’d want to go on a blind date with, not the kind of person I’d really care to watch onscreen for an hour and a half. But by the opening credits, she’d MV5BMTA1NDM0ODY2MDdeQTJeQWpwZ15BbWU4MDc2NTgxOTAy._V1_SY1000_CR0,0,1596,1000_AL_grown on me. She dances around her apartment so unselfconsciously I couldn’t help but see myself in her. By the film’s half way point, I quite agreed with the title: incredible indeed.

Jessica insists that the friendship between herself and Boone will be based on honesty, and this pact pulls no punches. They bond over their mutual obsession with their exes. They make brutal self-disclosures. As you can imagine, the intimacy grows between them and their relationship morphs more quickly than either of them are really ready for. But Jessica James isn’t just about boys, she’s a fully realized woman with a lot more going on. She doggedly applies to any theatre program that might accept her plays, she teaches theatre to children, she pursues her passions while supporting those of her friends.

Writer-director Jim Strouse wrote The Incredible Jessica James specifically for Jessica Williams, and I sincerely hope it’s a star-making role for her. She’s infectious and luminous and I want her to be in all the things. This movie is a rom-com for 2017: it is what it says it is. It doesn’t just pay lipservice to #feminism, it gives its leading lady a wide range of interests so that she doesn’t have to find fulfillment through love, she’s already got a lot going on. Williams and O’Dowd have a sparky kind of energy that’s gorgeous to watch and I LOVE me some Chris O’Dowd, so the fact that I was equally happy when he was offscreen says a lot about the kind of movie this is, and the star power that Williams shines upon us.

You don’t have to take my word for it: The Incredible Jessica James is streaming on Netflix right this very minute. It took me about 5-10 minutes to ease into it but I went from charmed to smitten pretty quick and here’s hoping that you do too.