Tag Archives: what to watch on Netflix

Little Boxes

There are a million movies about country bumpkins going to the big city: fish out of water hilarity ensues. In this case, a family does the opposite migration; they move from Brooklyn to small town Washington and culture shock ensues. In fact, the Burns family has a flat-out identity crisis. Mom Gina (Melanie Lynskey) has accepted a new tenure-track position at the local college but her new colleagues find her photography to be a little “New York centrist”. Dad Mack (Nelsan Ellis) struggles to keep up with is cooking show critiques without working appliances – the moving truck hasn’t arrived yet, so he’s chasing them instead of devoting time to his second novel. And son Clark (Armani Jackson) is finding out how it feels to be the only black kid in town as he attempts to befriend some girls who are looking for a token minority third.

You might almost want to call Little Boxes a companion piece to Jordan Peele’s Get Out for its quiet inspection of white liberal racism, but the truth is, this one lacks bite. It’s a little too tame in its condemnation. But what makes the film worthwhile is the excellent MV5BZWJmMWJmNzYtNzZhZi00MjFmLTliMmEtODdkYmQ0OWI1YzU5XkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyNTU2NDMyOTM@._V1_SY1000_SX1500_AL_family dynamic between Lynskey, Ellis, and Jackson. I always feel chuffed to see Lynskey in anything; she’s the Queen of indie movies and I bow down before her. Ellis was strong right out of the gate, but I struggled to place him. It was the voice that tipped me off: I knew him from somewhere. It took until the last scenes of the movie before I had my light bulb moment – True Blood (he played the cook, Lafayette). Even the kid is good, and I’m of the opinion that child actors can make or break your project. Too many directors don’t spend near enough time finding a kid who’s more than just cute. I’m happy to report that Jackson earns his spot in the Burns trifecta. They make a family you’ll fall in love with immediately, which is what makes it so effective when they hit a rough patch. Their disharmony transfers to us.

The messiness of life is addressed honestly if not always subtly. There are many ways in which to not fit in, and Little Boxes finds at least three. But it also finds a comforting way to put things back together, and maybe that’s the point, not the oddly-shaped puzzle pieces that life gives us, but the glue that holds them together.

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Train to Busan

Seok-Woo (Yoo Gong) is a busy hedge fund manager who thinks mainly of himself, and his success. He’s pushed away his wife, who has left him, and he’s letting his mother raise his young daughter, Soo-an (Soo-an Kim). When a Wii fails to impress Soo-an for her birthday, Seok-Woo reluctantly agrees to take her on a trip to visit her mother. They board a trail from Seoul to Busan, and their timing is impeccable (although, to be honest, I’m still not 100% if it was impeccably good or impeccably bad. You decide). Just as their train is pulling away, a very fast-spreading zombie infection overtakes the station. Has the train gotten away cleanly? Well, no, not entirely.

Like Snowpiercer and Murder on the Orient Express, the train setting gives a unique twist on the genre in question, in this case, the good old zombie movie. A train, as you MV5BMGUyZDQ2NzEtZDIwMi00ZTA4LWEyM2EtNTIyZDdlZjBmNmY3XkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyNjEwNTM2Mzc@._V1_SY1000_CR0,0,1494,1000_AL_know, is basically a big metal tube and while it’s travelling, you’re all but locked inside. There’s no where to go. All the players, good and bad, and all the answers, good and bad, must be found within the train.

Seok-Woo is intent on protecting his daughter. It’s sad that it takes an apocalypse for this father to finally dedicate time for his daughter, but there it is. For better or worse, their fates become intertwined with those of the people in their compartment: a pregnant woman and her aggressive husband, a couple of elderly women, a vagrant, a high school baseball team, an arrogant businessman.

Director Sang-ho Yeon makes brilliant use of the cramped quarters. The action sequences are taut. He’s less confident about the wobbly social commentary he sometimes wants to make, and the zombies’ abilities do waver a little bit depending on what will service the plot, but it’s never very long before another burst of action is upon us. The characters have actual personalities; some you’ll root for, some you’ll cheer for when they get eaten.  Sure dad’s character arc is a little predictable, but when’s the last horror movie that even bothered with one? Train to Busan is a little overlong but very watchable, even for a chickenshit like me. Zombie outbreaks tend to bring out the worst in us but Yeon reminds us that we’re still capable of compassion and sacrifice as well. He elevates the film from its generic genre; though its roots are still evident, this film is as fresh and unique as it filled with spilled brains.

Mindhorn

mindhorn_final.jpgCanadians are consistently the funniest people in the world as far as I’m concerned, which is hard to reconcile with the stereotype that we’re boring and forgettable.  So I don’t try, I just think of us as funny and the stereotype as another example of how Americans are just not as good as we are.  Above all else, Canadians specialize in satire.  I have to think that is inherited from our former colonizers, as the British may love satire more than we do.

But just as Canada is not Britain (because in 1867 we asked politely if we could be our own country from then on, and the Brits were like, didn’t you already leave when the Americans did?), British satire is a whole other thing from ours.  I have always been fascinated by how there really is no middle ground in North America – either you devour British satire or you think it’s unbearable.  Personally, I find Steve Coogan a good test for one’s tolerance for British satire.   If he cracks you up then you are going to enjoy Mindhorn, whereas if you’re thinking, “Who the hell is Steve Coogan?” then you should probably give Mindhorn a pass.

I think Coogan is hilarious so of course Mindhorn made me laugh.  As a bonus, Coogan is not just a random reference I decided to use.  He’s also a bit player in Mindhorn along with a ton of familiar Brits (including a great cameo by a guy nicknamed “Kenny B.”).   But Mindhorn is co-writer Julian Barratt’s vehicle, and he is terrific as Richard Thorncroft/Mindhorn, a washed-up actor/TV detective.  Mindhorn’s gimmick is his bionic eye that is a lie detector, allowing him to literally see the truth.  Mindhorn made Thorncroft a huge star in the 70s and early 80s but he hasn’t exactly been tearing it up since then.  In fact, he’s just lost his last endorsement contract (for orthopedic socks).  So when a call comes in from the police department requesting Thorncroft’s help (as Mindhorn) in solving a murder case, he jumps right in, seeing it as a great way to kickstart his career.

In the finest British tradition, we quickly learn that Thorncroft is a grade-A idiot (maybe even grade-AAA if you use the meat grading system).  Still, as tends to happen, Thorncroft manages to bumble his way to (moderate) success despite not having a clue at any time.  And while Mindhorn’s way forward isn’t particularly innovative or clever, Barratt is clearly having great fun bringing Mindhorn to life and that fun is infectious.  The satire is spot on, as Mindhorn takes every opportunity to poke fun at the real TV shows from Mindhorn’s day, like Knight Rider and the Six Million Dollar Man, and there are some good shots at the cheesiness of those shows as well as the spin off products from them (such as Mindhorn’s best-selling rock album).

You’ve seen this all before but it’s good fun and I don’t think satirizing David Hasselhoff will ever get old.  So if you have 90 minutes to spare and think Coogan is a funny guy then you should check out Mindhorn on Netflix.

Tunnel

On his way to his young daughter’s birthday party, a man becomes trapped in his car as a tunnel collapses around him. There’s no telling when or if help with arrive, and all he’s got are 2 bottles of water and a birthday cake to see him through. His wife finds out in the worst way imaginable and the Korean news is pretty ruthless in reporting the failure of a newly-built piece of infrastructure. The damage is so encompassing that the rescue will be a long-term affair and there’s no guarantee that a little water and cake will be enough to keep him alive until help arrives. Of course, that’s not even considering whether the panic and isolation might get him first – or if the poorly and hastily constructed tunnel might further deteriorate.

Jung-soo (Jung-woo Ha) is the man in the tunnel so of course this movie is his. As blunders delay the rescue and the national media loses interest, this poor guy is as alone fullsizephoto731941on this earth as anyone will ever be. He isn’t just going through a physical hardship, but a psychological one as well. Occasional glimpses of the rescue effort reminds us just how bleak his situation really is. Dae-kyoung (Dal-su Oh) is the only member of the rescue team truly dedicated to Jung-soo’s survival. Politicans are turning their backs and resources are drying up – are being redirected, in fact, to the construction of yet another tunnel. Meanwhile, Jung-soo’s wife, Se-hyun (Doona Bae) treads the fine line between hope and realism. This trio of actors give very fine performances. Tunnel ends up being more character-driven than action movie, and that’s a good thing. When the script demands it, the visual effects are there, but it’s Jung-woo Ha and co-stars who drive the story forward. It’s a story we’ve seen and heard before but writer-director Kim Seong-hun injects this with satirical elements that bring renewed interest to the genre.

Tunnel is perhaps overlong and could have benefited from some fat-trimming but I still really enjoyed it. It’s got some juicily angry scenes (Kim Seong-hun obviously has something to say about bureaucracy in general and his nation’s government in particular) and some surprisingly dark humour. You might not expect to chuckle through a disaster flick, but this one’s got a little bit of everything.

 

10 Must-See Documentaries on Netflix

An earlier post flagged some good movies worth your time on Netflix. This one does the same but shines the spotlight on documentaries, an especially strong category on Netflix. These are current on Canadian Netflix as of May 2017 and clicking on blue titles will reveal a more detailed look at some very good films.

Sour Grapes: Welcome to the world of fine and rare wine auction markets, and how they were ripe for fraud. This doc centers on one particular counterfeiter who befriended the rich and powerful and swindled them out of millions of dollars.

13th: Ava DuVernay’s in-depth look at the prison system in the United States how it reveals America’s history of racial inequality. The system is busted. Get woke.

Jesus Camp: I’ve forced this one on a few people now because I think it’s daring and scary as fuck. It’s about a camp indoctrinating kids into evangelical Christianity and the extremism on display is alarming.

Muscle Shoals: A must-see for music lovers, it explores the studio itself and Rick Hall, the man behind it, responsible for making music that defined a generation, birthing the Muscle Shoals Sound, remaining influential and relevant today.

Peter and the Farm: One of the most authentic slices of life I’ve ever seen on film. Peter is an old man, the product of his addictions. He’s alone on his farm, resenting the land he once cherished, and counting down the days until he dies alone. Depressing but fascinating.

Tower: A look at the fateful day when a sharpshooter started killing people on a college campus in Austin, Texas. Effective story telling and a visual flair help piece together a narrative worthy of remembrance.

Raiders!: A somewhat gleeful fulfillment of a childhood dream. Friends who spent their youth remaking Raiders of the lost Ark reunite to film the one last scene that eluded them at the time due to budgetary and logistical reasons but is now within their grasp.

The Hunting Ground: An unflinching look at the campus rape epidemic: the boys who perpetrate it, the administrators who cover it up, and the girls and their families who lay devastated in its wake.

Miss Sharon Jones: Just as her singing career is exploding she’s sidelined by pancreatic cancer. It’s the worst year of her life, but she’s not the kind of woman who goes without a fight.

For The Love of Spock: A sweet tribute to his father, Leonard Nimoy, by a son in mourning for a father and a national icon. Learn about the man and his most famous character, and be touched by how much those two overlapped.

 

What are your Netflix picks?

 

Oranges and Sunshine

In the 1980s, British social worker Margaret Humphreys uncovered a secret. Her government had sent hundreds of children to Australia. Supposedly orphaned, these kids were sent to be adopted by Australian parents, though some wound up in orphanages instead. Turns out, the kids weren’t necessarily orphans. If their parents turned up to reclaim them, they were told their kids had already been adopted. In fact they’d vanished into a child migration scheme that was kept quiet for decades. Humphreys set out to reunite these displaced children,  scattered across Australia over decades, with parents who might still be living in Britain. Neither country wanted to take any responsibility, of course.

Margaret Humphreys is a real woman who took this on herself because she saw the MV5BNTk2MzYyMDA2M15BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwNTAxMjg0NA@@._V1_SX1777_CR0,0,1777,740_AL_injustice, and people’s pain, and she decided to do something about it. She was threatened and abused because she was exposing some very dirty secrets covered up by some very powerful people. The only help she ever got was from the adoptees themselves, all of them different shades of broken, harbouring the wounded children within. The real Margaret was awarded the Medal of the Order of Australia in 1993, and Commander of the British Empire in 2011 for her work, but as this film can attest, life was not made easy for her.

I believe that we can’t start healing from a trauma until the truth of the injury is admitted. This story was quite shameful on Australian and Britain, but they’re not the only ones with blemishes. Here in Canada we have our own sorrow. We call it the 60s scoop though it’s much broader than that. It refers to the over-eager removal of Aboriginal children from their homes. In some cases removal may have been appropriate, but others not, and in any case, the children weren’t just taken from their parents, but from the culture. They were raised off-reserve, losing their language and their identity, breaking social and familial bonds. Although not deported, these kids also lost more than just their parents.

In Oranges and Sunshine, Emily Watson plays Margaret Humphreys, and she does the formidable woman justice. Watson always does, doesn’t she? Hugo Weaving plays Jack, the adoptee through whom we experience the grief and loss of the process. Seeing it from both their perspectives keeps the film balanced; this is not merely an interesting case, but a personal and painful journey that doesn’t guarantee a happy ending for everyone. It’s not a flashy movie. It’s mostly fact-based. But it is sincere and at times quite powerful.

Cool Shit on Netflix

Netflix is a black hole. You can spend more time deciding what to watch than actually watching. Sometimes the decision is paralyzing – am I the only one who has occasionally just read a damn book instead? Here’s a handy list of stuff that’s worth your time on Netflix. All of this can be found on Canadian Netflix in May 2017, but lots and maybe even most will be available in nearly all markets. Click on any blue title to read more about the film, and stay tuned for another post featuring documentaries, as Netflix is particularly good for those.

Don’t Think Twice: When one person in an improv comedy troupe gets a big break, the rest of the group grapples with jealousy as they realize they’re not all destined for great things. Starring Mike Birbiglia, Keegan-Michael Key, Gillian Jacobs.

 

Blue Jay: Two former high school sweethearts meet up years later in their hometown and spend the day (and night) reminiscing – the flame is rekindled but so are past hurts. Starring Sarah Paulson and Mark Duplass.

Mascots: In this new mockumentary by Christopher Guest, a bunch of low-level sports mascots compete as only adults wearing ridiculous fuzzy costumes could. Starring Parker Posey, Chris O’Dowd, Zach Woods, and the usual suspects.

Grandma: Lily Tomlin gives a career-best performance as the titular Grandma, called upon when her granddaughter needs an abortion her estranged daughter wouldn’t approve of. With Judy Greer, Julia Garner, and Marcia Gay Harden.

Infinitely Polar Bear: A manic-depressive father tries to win back his wife by attempting to take care of their two young, spirited daughters while she goes back to school. Super well-acted by Mark Ruffalo and Zoe Saldana.

 

Experimenter: About the infamous experiments by psychologist Stanley Milgram that tested people’s willingness to obey authority – with shocking results. Starring Peter Sarsgaard, Winona Ryder, Anton Yelchin.

Desierto: A group of people trying to cross the border from Mexico into the United States encounter a man who has gone rogue, taking border patrol duties into his own racist and violent hands, man hunting man. Starring Gael Garcia Bernal and Jeffrey Dean Morgan.

American Honey: A teenage girl with nothing to lose goes AWOL with a bunch of traveling magazine sales misfits and gets caught up in a perfect storm of hard partying, law breaking, and young love. Starring Sasha Lane, Shia LaBeouf, Riley Keough.

Cake: A woman becomes fascinated by the suicide of someone in her chronic pain support group while coping (and failing to cope) with her own personal tragedy. Starring Jennifer Aniston, Anna Kendrick, and Sam Worthington.

The Lobster: A movie only for the most quirky and adventurous audiences, about a world in which single people have 45 days to find love or face the direst of consequences. Starring Rachel Weisz, Colin Farrell, and John C. Reilly.

Hunter Gatherer: An indie gem in which an irrationally optimistic man returns home after a 3 year stint in prison only to find his girlfriend and his family have all moved on. Starring Andre Roya and George Sample III.

The Spectacular Now: Young love changes things for an alcoholic high school senior – but even the nicest of girls is no match for addictions. Starring Shailene Woodley, Miles Teller; with Brie Larson, Jennifer Jason Leigh, and Bob Odenkirk.

Calvary: Not for the faint of heart. After being threatened during a confession, a good-natured priest must battle some super dark forces in his community. Starring Brendan Gleeson and Chris O’Dowd.

Denial: Rachel Weisz and Timothy Spall go head to head in a battle of Holocaust denial, based on the real-life court case.

Collateral: A hitman forces a cabdriver to drive him all over the city of Los Angeles as he performs a multitude of sins, while a dutiful cop chases behind them. Starring Jamie Foxx, Mark Ruffalo, and Tom Cruise.

45 Years: A married couple about to celebrate their wedding anniversary (guess which one) receives shattering news that makes them question everything. Starring Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtenay.

The Witch: This one scared the bejesus out of me with its dark, suspenseful mood that’ll ring buckets of anxiety out of you when a 1630s New England family is torn apart by the forces of witchcraft…more or less.

 

Anomalisa: A stop-motion animated movie by Charlie Kaufman, because why not? It charmed the pants off me when a man paralyzed by his unremarkable life experiences something out of the ordinary.

Force Majeure: A family on a ski vacation has their whole world turns upside down when an avalanche hits – everyone is fine, but the fact that Dad ran and left his family to die makes everyone very uncomfortable. A movie that will inspire discussion.

 

Sand Castle

There was nothing very honourable about the war in Iraq, and this movie knows it. It’s written by war vet Chris Roessner and he’s not afraid to paint the screen with his shame.

Private Matt Ocre (Nicholas Hoult) signed up to the reserves in the summer of 2001, thinking it would help him pay his way through college. And it might have worked had some idiots not flown planes into the Twin Towers. So off he goes to a war that’s immediately disillusioning. He doesn’t know why he’s there or what he’s doing.

Sand-Castle-Movie-2Roessner watched Platoon for the first time in Saddam Hussein’s commandeered palace in Tikrit and it made him want to really pay attention to what was happening around him – it was film school he was hoping to attend, after all. Now he’s among the first of his generation to write a script about his own war.

If Ocre is a reluctant soldier, he’s also an empathetic one. Younger than most others in his platoon, he isn’t yet jaded; his naivety both a blessing and a curse in his work. He gets sent to a village where they need to repair a water main but work is slow, the days scorching, the villagers too afraid to lend a hand. It’s a clusterfuck. The movie is basically the whole war in a nutshell: it doesn’t go very well. They fight apathy every day. The two sides struggle to understand each other.

Sand Castle diverges from other recent war movies in that it shows fresh-faced new recruits being sent overseas, maybe for the first time in their lives, instead of the grizzled, cynical Bradley Cooper types we’re used to seeing.  The movie is authentic but it’s no classic – a forgettable, minor war movie. But it does give Henry Cavill the chance to shout my favourite line: “Listen here you piece of shit. I hope you get shot and fucking die…Don’t translate that.”

In The Shadow of Iris

She is a seductress. So when you show up to put a spare tire on her car and she spontaneously asks you for more, you say yes. Her terms: pretend to kidnap her and keep the ransom money for yourself. Her banker husband is horrid, she says. Maybe she touches you for just a little longer than necessary. Leans in so you can smell her intoxicating skin, catch a glimpse down her low-cut dress.

download-2100-low_IRI-high1She is out to lunch with the banker. As he pays the cheque, she goes outside for a smoke. Two minutes later, she’s disappeared. The kidnap plot is in motion. A photo of her bound and gagged is texted to the distraught banker, a demand for cash is made. But something goes wrong at the drop-off: fake kidnappings are  more complicated than they seem. WAY more complicated.

This french-language movie is THICK with complications. Pea soup thick. Guacamole thick. Grandma’s cankles thick. Charlotte Le Bon, Romain Duris, and Jalil Lespert all put in stunning work; they are the beating pulse of this thing. In The Shadow of Iris is rich, compelling, fertile. The pacing is brisk. Lespert, also the director, pulls great performances out of his costars, necessarily since we don’t always have time for a buffer of motivation. But it’s smart and a little out of the way – a great Netflix find, if you ask me. Sex, money, intrigue, lots of naughty lingerie: what else do you want? No really. WHAT ELSE DO YOU FRICKING WANT?

 

 

Oklahoma City

We’ve all got points of history that fix us to a certain date and time: maybe you remember where you were when JFK was shot. Maybe it was Prince Charles marrying Diana, or the day the Challenger blew up, or baby Jessica down that well. Certainly 9/11 is fixed in our public conscience. For me, the first news event that really hit me was the bombing in Oklahoma City. I was young, but even in Canada the coverage of this tragedy was electrifying and horrible. I remember learning that there was a daycare in the building, and that feeling in my stomach, a hard pit that formed in my inability to fathom the kind of person capable of this.

MV5BYTJmNWRkYmEtMmU5MC00YzczLTk5NjEtODg3NjFmZTNiNjI0L2ltYWdlL2ltYWdlXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyMjc5MTQ1ODY@._V1_SY1000_SX675_AL_This documentary places the bombing in Oklahoma City within the context not just of Waco, but of a growing movement within white “christian” “patriots” – white supremacists who distrusted government and valued guns, apparently above all else. The aryan nations held their head quarters of hatred in northern Idaho and things went bed. Of course they did: that many guns in the hands of that many idiots always does.

Meanwhile: who is Timothy McVeigh? Anti-government, conspiracy theorist, sure. But also a soldier, one the government was willing to promote. McVeigh was a loser though, and when he flunked out of ranger school, he hit the road and traveled gun show to gun show. Unsurprisingly, he met with white supremacists, distilling and reinforcing his craziest notions. He washed up in Waco during the siege, selling racist bumper stickers to other lookey-loos, and raged against the government holding its own people hostage, as he saw it. It’s easy to dismiss him as a crackpot, but he’s a crackpot who built a bomb that he knew would claim innocent lives, the lives of children, and felt justified doing it.

When he was arrested and America got their first glimpse of the terrorist behind the atrocity at Oklahoma City, people were astonished to find that this was not some sort of “foreign threat” but one of their own. Fuck.

Over two decades have passed but it’s still hard to look back. Director Barak Goodman offers a restrained, though not bereft of emotion, look at those events, and it’s still hard not to flinch.