Tag Archives: what to watch on Netflix

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.

 

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Chasing Coral

The ocean only has to warm about two degrees for coral to die, and guess what? The ocean is warming and the coral is dying. Much of it is dead already. It’s not just sad because we’re losing a beautiful animal; coral is vital to our ocean’s ecosystems, and when coral dies, so do many other species in the ocean, and it’s only a matter of time before we ourselves feel dire repercussions. Coral are the trees of the ocean, and their extinction en masse cannot and will not go unnoticed. The question is: will we notice before it’s too late?

One diver, Richard Vevers, realizes the ocean has a bit of an advertising issue: it’s out of sight, and largely out of mind. But if he could find a way to show us at home what’s going on beneath the waves, might we pay attention? Inspired by the film Chasing Ice, which captured the receding glaciers through years of time-lapse, Richard thought the same MV5BODA5ODAyNjk5M15BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwNzQ3NTE5MDI@._V1_SX1777_CR0,0,1777,785_AL_technique could be applied to the reefs, so he called up director Jeff Orlowski, and an idea was born.

Underwater time lapse meant nothing short of a new invention was necessary. A whole team built special cameras that could exist in salt water for months a time, in the cold, under great depth and pressure, subject to storms, and needing not only to be wiped clean regularly, but to host a router that would send the images back. This is how they meet Zackery Rago, who’s part of the camera building team but also has a secret passion for coral. They position their cameras in the reefs of Hawaii, the Bahamas, and Bermuda, but nature and technology conspire against them. In the end, it’s necessary for them to go down and record this massive bleaching event themselves.

Another lesson learned: watching a beautiful animal die is hard. Watching them practically go extinct is wrenching. 2016 was a bad year for coral. 29% of the Great Barrier Reef died in 2016 alone. In 30 years, we could lose it all. White coral is a shock, of course. The white is the coral’s exposed skeleton. Death is imminent. Dead coral is even sadder, devoid of any life or colour.  While the time lapse originally meant that they could observe this happening from a distance, the modified plan of divers capturing the footage themselves means they are confronted with this death and dying in person, and they find that quite devastating. I think you will too and I think you should watch anyway.

Kristen Bell recorded a song specifically for use in the film. She feels strongly about the film’s message, but I think the hope is that we all will, and feel galvanized into action. You can start with Vever’s The Ocean Agency and suggestions found at Chasing Coral. But I think just not turning away from this is the important thing.

 

 

 

Vegas Baby

Perhaps as many as 1 out of 6 couples faces some sort of fertility issue when trying to conceive a baby. To answer this need, science offers a smidgen of hope: the ability to harvest eggs, inseminate them, and plant the fertilized embryos in utero, giving conception a greater chance. Is it a perfect system? No it is not. The odds are likely still against you. But the numbers aren’t the only barrier to babies – so, too, is the cost. One fertility clinic therefore offers the chance to “win a baby” – really, just one course of in vitro fertilization. But this contest attracts many desperate people who make emotional appeals.

This is a really interesting documentary, and a heartbreaking one too. It addresses issues ranging from:

movieposter.jpga) Is it even ethical to “give away”  a baby as promotional material?

b) Is it exploitative to force fertility-challenged people to compete against one another?

c) What happens to all the “losers”?

d) Why are people willing to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars trying to conceive, but unwilling to adopt?

e) Why do some countries consider infertility to be a legitimate medical condition deserving of coverage and treatment while the U.S. leaves infertile men and women high and dry?

e) After bankrupting themselves financially and emotionally, what happens to a couple who still doesn’t have a baby?

f) What happens when your heart tells you to pursue baby-making by any means possible, but your religion expressly forbids it?

Director Amanda Micheli has fertility problems of her own, and used the baby contest as a provocative conversation starter in this documentary, a film that takes a look behind the curtain at the subject that is so rarely talked about. It’s a well-made film that is interesting and worth of your time. Kudos to all the people who shared their journey and their private pain; fertility and infertility are little understood, so shining a light on this issue is an important step in humanizing a subject that really hits us at the core of our personhood. We take our fertility for granted and losing control over something our bodies are supposed to do naturally seems to be a demoralizing process. The film is full of heartbreak. But there are little rays of hope too, and Micheli does a good job of balancing the rain and the sunshine.

 

 

Okja

The new CEO of Mirando, Lucy (Tilda Swinton), announces that her company has made a discovery that will rid the world of hunger: a super piglet that looks like a cross between a rhino and an elephant that we’re assured tastes really fucking good. 26 super piglets are distributed to farmers around the world to be cared for over the next decade. In 10 years, popular TV veterinarian Dr Johnny Wilcox (Jake Gyllenhaal) will judge them and declare one ‘the best.’

Cut to: 10 years later, Wilcox hikes up a remote Korean hillside to visit Okja, a prized super piglet raised by Mija (Seo-Hyun Ahn) and her father. Raised on love and freedom, Okja is objectively the best of the bunch, but that means this beloved pet must go to NYC okja-creature-littlegirl-woodsto be paraded around by its parent corporation (to disguise the secret testing) – unless of course she’s kidnapped by the Animal Liberation Front headed by Jay (Paul Dano), “not a terrorist,” along the way. And the ALF is only the first group of people Mija will come across that want to control the fate of her large friend, Okja.

Co-written and directed by Snowpiercer’s Bong Joon Ho, you can bet he’s got some interesting thing to say about these events: GMOs, image-obsessed corporations, eco-terrorism. But he cleverly brings it back to one of the most basic relationships to remind us of what’s important: the one between a girl and her best friend, the family pet. Here in North America, not only can we not imagine eating dogs, we object to it morally. Here, we name our dogs, we sleep curled up beside them, we feed them table scraps from our fingers, we look into their sweet faces and tell them they’re good boys, very good boys. If we accorded all animals the respect we give our pets, it would change the food industry okjaas we know it. This is the way Bong Joon Ho choose to frame Okja’s predicament.

Tonally, Okja is very different from Snowpiercer. If the score doesn’t alert you to its farcical nature, and Jake Gyllenhaal’s voice doesn’t do it, then the unconvincing CGI will likely push you in that very direction. But Bong Joon Ho’s skill as a director means that he juggles these switchbacks in tone very carefully, and Okja’s whimsy never fails. Yes, it’s a completely weird movie, one that can feel like a cartoon and a horror at the same time, that can make you laugh amid the darkest of scenes. I realize this movie won’t be for everyone, but I found it profoundly interesting. Tilda Swinton is excellent, and Gyllenhaal does something we’ve never seen from him before. But it’s Seo-Hyun Ahn who steals the show, her bond with Okja and her purity of heart that elevate this movie from fantasy to fable.

 

 

 

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.

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.