Saturday, 7 May 2016

A Few Good Movies... Netflix Originals

The future of cinema is Netflix. Or at least it could be, and that’s what I wanted to find out. The money Netflix is throwing at film and television production right now is huge, and their commissioning of original films and buying up the distribution rights to others ahead of traditional film studios is having a significant impact on the industry. According to The Guardian, Netflix will spend $5 billion on new content in 2016 alone. $5 billion! Their business model relies on attracting new subscribers and then keeping them, and through hit series like House of Cards, Breaking Bad, Better Call Saul, Orange is the New Black, and The Killing, they’re proving that it’s working. But what of their films? At the time of writing there are 23 films under the Netflix Originals banner, I’ve now seen them all (even Pee-wee’s Big Holiday), and I must say I’ve been impressed by the general quality of them. There are of course a few duds, but the majority are worth seeing, and a few of them are exceptional.

In fact it’s really impressed me that Netflix is putting so much funding into documentaries that bring to light some highly controversial and political issues, stories that need to be told yet you wouldn’t expect to see on such a platform, and shows that their output is not just dictated by box office figures. A huge captive audience (75 million in 200 countries, and growing) are hoovering up their content, and those numbers are only going to increase. I think it’s too early to say whether it will become an MGM, Universal, 20th Century Fox… but the signs are that over the next few years Netflix will be an increasingly prominent home for major new films. Aside from the current films reviewed below, there are original films on the way from the likes of Brad Pitt, Woody Allen, Adam Sandler, Christopher Guest and Angelina Jolie. As someone who has already almost entirely abandoned the cinema in favour of home viewing, I’m really interested to see where this is all headed. Anyway, on with the reviews. I've even painted my rating system Netflix red for the occasion...

"Bullet is just eating everything... leaves, trees, ground, person. Eating them. Just making person to bleed everywhere. We are just like wild animals now, with no place to be going. Sun, why are you shining at this world? I am wanting to catch you in my hands, to squeeze you until you can not shine no more. That way, everything is always dark and nobody's ever having to see all the terrible things that are happening here." (Beasts of No Nation)

Art of Conflict (2012)
We begin with an unusual choice for a documentary subject; the propaganda murals that dominate the walls and communities of Northern Ireland. As explained by narrator Vince Vaughn (whose sister Valeri Vaughn is the director), these murals arose from the troubles between Protestants and Catholics, and the uprising of the IRA that led to years of what was essentially civil war in Britain and Ireland. There have been so many documentaries and dramas about the history of these troubles, but by tying the story of these times into an analysis of the infamous murals, it offers a different insight into a familiar tale. I've travelled through Northern and Southern Ireland many times, and even though the country is now for the most part at peace, over recent years it has still been quite intimidating to be faced with bloody images of balaclava-covered fighters holding bombs and machine guns as soon as you exit the ferry. The film raises the question of whether these paintings can be considered art, or merely propaganda. I'm not even sure what the answer is, but it's perhaps enough just to raise the question. A well made and thought-provoking film about a bleak subject.

The Battered Bastards of Baseball (2014)
Who knew that Kurt Russell's dad was an actor who went on to become a groundbreaking and hugely successful baseball team owner? Who could watch this film and say they previously knew anything about baseball? Not me, on either count. Kurt appears in this (along with players of the era) to tell the story of Bing Russell, who started up the Portland Mavericks, the only independent team in an otherwise franchise-dominated league system. He broke every "rule" on how a team should be run; holding open trials and signing players that no-one else would touch, allowing the players to look and behave however they wanted, and generally causing a real stir amongst those running the game. Despite having never seen a live game or knowing the name of a single baseball player, I actually found myself really enjoying this, which I guess is always a sign of a good documentary. The music may be part of the reason why, it’s a little like you’d hear in a circus when the clowns come in (forgive my ignorance, it’s probably a classic baseball tune that I’ve just insulted), and has the effect of making it fun to hear about a sport you have absolutely no interest in.

Beasts of No Nation (2015)
The searing story of a young boy forced into the horrors of militia warfare in Africa, under the command of a brutal leader played by Idris Elba. I was already well aware of this film due to the controversy over the Oscar snubs for the film itself and Elba's lead performance, and I have to say the controversy was justified because it truly is an outstanding performance and an outstanding film. Told from the boy's perspective, he (like many other children in the group) passes from one armed attack to the next, killing victims in the name of their cause. What’s shocking here is not so much the sight of young boys violently killing people with guns and machetes, but how quickly they lose their sense of compassion or thought of the consequences of their actions. They have been turned into ruthless soldiers by a man who claims to be their "father" yet has brainwashed them for his own cause. There is so much to say about the way the film is shot, the fantastic score, and of course the performances of a very young cast absolutely nailing such difficult roles, but the best thing I can do is just recommend it unreservedly. This is the drama film that declares Netflix has arrived at the top table of filmmaking, even if the Oscars haven't yet woken up to that fact.

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: Sword of Destiny (2016)
It's taken sixteen years for the sequel to the groundbreaking Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon to appear, and it's notable just how far visual effects have moved on in the intervening period. For this is a spectacular film to look at; full-on Lord of the Rings mountainous landscapes, hordes of swordsmen fleeing all over the place, ambitiously choreographed floaty sword fight scenes, and a standard of visual effects that the original would have loved to have been able to play with. The highlight is a fight in a fantastical wintery landscape atop a frozen lake, it may not last long but is quite something to see. Of course it loses the element of surprise and originality that the first film had, for western audiences at least, and from the beginning was always going to suffer from the comparison. There's a plot in there somewhere about a bunch of people who'd really like to get hold of a fancy sword, the plot barely goes any deeper than that and I'll admit that after a while I'd forgotten exactly any of this was happening, but for me it scarcely mattered. Bloodshed, people jumping around on rooftops, and pretty scenery: that's what I'm looking for in a film like this, and that's exactly what I got. It’s only because the story’s so forgettable that I can’t rate it higher. Stick around too for the end credits, the inkstain animation is utterly beautiful and wouldn't look out of place as a Bond title sequence.

E-Team (2014)
Human Rights Watch are an organisation that reports on human rights abuses around the world; the people on the ground who carry out the investigations into these crimes, often at great risk to their own lives, are called the E-Team (Emergencies Team). A documentary that's an insightfully depressing report on the worst of humanity; in places like Syria and Lybia we hear about and see the aftermath of dictator and government-ordered massacres, bodies burned, bomb detonations in civilian areas, and cover-ups. You can see news reports about such events so often that it becomes white noise, but it hits home much harder in film format. There are also things here that you just won't see on the news, particularly in showing what it's like to be someone whose job it is to uncover these crimes and separate fact from fiction or witness exaggeration. If I wasn't doing this blog I doubt I would have gotten around to watching this, and I bet the viewer numbers are pretty low for such a film as it's not exactly a crowd-pleaser, but I did find it of interest and will likely encourage me to be more open minded and experimental in what I watch.

Hot Girls Wanted (2015)
I’m not really sure who this is aimed at. The title and provocative cover image suggests it’s initially going to attract pervs looking for free porn, but they’ll quickly switch off once they realise it’s a fairly run-of-the-mill documentary account of female ‘amateurs’ trying to make a few bucks in the internet porn industry. If it’s trying to take a serious look at the treatment of women in a seedy and shady industry, then it does achieve that, but there’s nothing to conclude from it that people won’t already know or have assumed, and the tone is quite preachy and condescending. It doesn’t bring anything new to the table, and as it’s a documentary I wouldn’t ordinarily have had any interest in watching, it would have to have done that at the very least before I could recommend it to anyone. Documentary Not Wanted.

Keith Richards: Under the Influence (2015)
Fans of the legendary Rolling Stones musician will find plenty to enjoy in this interview-style documentary about his career and how much it was influenced by a passion for the Blues. There are some fun anecdotes about his young Stones days, how they basically made the careers of a host of little known American Blues artists, along with studio footage of him recording his latest album. Tom Waits also pops up from time to time with a voice that is almost reaching Nick Nolte levels of gravellyness. Almost. It's not going to convert anyone who isn't already a Keith Richards or Stones fan, and there are better Blues docs out there (Scorsese's series for example), but passably interesting all the same.

Mission Blue (2014)
Let’s go all Discovery Channel now with a documentary that follows environmental campaigner Sylvia Earle in her fight so save the ocean from human destruction. It sounds a little over the top to say that, but when you see some of the details of what we’re doing to the planet, it doesn’t sound so far fetched. This most hit home for me when she’s discussing the “dead zones”, vast areas of ocean in over 500 areas around the globe that have become so polluted and starved of oxygen that no life can survive within it - anything living there just suffocates. I hadn’t a clue about stuff like that, it’s quite an eye-opener. Admittedly it is quite a dry film, I didn’t find it quite attention-holding enough (though it would be a difficult subject to jazz up), but as with all such docs, the cinematography is beautifully done and it will find its way to the people who are passionate about such subjects. Having it on Netflix rather than a one-off Discovery episode also means that it will in the long-run be seen by more people, another advantage of the service over traditional tv.

Mitt (2014)
Largely due to my repeated binge-watching of The West Wing and House of Cards, I've been following the current US Presidential campaign with some interest. This documentary goes behind the scenes of Mitt Romney's two attempts to gain the Republican Party's presidential nomination, and then in his second run, his failed attempt to take the White House from Barack Obama. With a surprising level of access we get to see how he and his family handle the lead up to the primaries and elections, particularly during moments before and after key events such as televised debates and election night itself. The focus is predominantly on him and his family, rather than the strategists, pollsters, spin doctors and advisers you might expect to dominate the story, and I thought it was quite a successful attempt to show what it's like to run for the presidency. The film also made the choice not to offer any opinion or narration, only present the recorded footage, which I thought worked well in this context as it helped keep the film away from feeling like part of an agenda or propaganda (though it is naturally very one-sided). I’m not getting into the rights and wrongs of his policies, but I will say that he and his family come across as reasonably grounded people, and on the face of what we see here, he appeared to run a significantly more dignified campaign than we're currently seeing from Trump's All-American Circus. It's a bit of a lightweight in the political documentary genre, but if you have an interest in American politics I would imagine it would be of interest.

My Beautiful Broken Brain (2016)
Lotje Sodderland, from London, was 34 when she suffered a massive brain haemorrhage, which essentially reset her mind back to early childhood and forced her to learn how to speak and write all over again. Her vision is impaired and she suffers wild nightmarish visions that she can only liken to scenes from David Lynch films, the director who ended up producing this and had an indirect influence on her recovery. The story is remarkable, as is she, and the film's direction and editing does an excellent job of visualising what she is seeing and experiencing. I'll admit that I started to get a little claustrophobic, or at least uncomfortable watching this, because it struck me how much a good documentary can make us as viewers link what we're seeing to our own lives. I also have had a couple of consultations with a neurosurgeon in recent times, and there is a realistic prospect of having to undergo surgery at some point in my life. It is of course a daunting thing to have to contemplate, but seeing Lotje's positive attitude and ability to accept her new "normal" rather than crave her old self is hugely inspiring. It's only really in times of difficulty and suffering that people are able to filter out all the unimportant things in life that we fill our days worrying about, and sometimes it takes a documentary like this to remind us of that.

My Own Man (2015)
Would you watch a documentary about a "nobody"? By that I mean an ordinary person who has led an ordinary life, doesn't feel he's achieved much and for most of his days has lacked the drive or confidence to change what he doesn't like about himself. That is basically what filmmaker David Sampliner is doing here, making a film about his own life, interviewing friends and family about their perceptions of him, attending weird workshops in which people shout at each other and try to become more manly, and through narration trying to figure out where he's headed following the news that he's due to be a father. It’s not the most riveting documentary I’ve ever seen, but at least makes a difference from the usual celebrity biographies, with the introspectiveness reminding me in some ways of Sherman’s March (1985). I should say that he hasn't had a wholly ordinary life, since school age he's been friends with Edward Norton, who briefly appears in the film and actually inputs some of the most interesting thoughts from those interviewed. I'm sure it was cathartic for Sampliner to go through the process of making this, yet by the hour mark my mind was starting to wander, and I was left wishing I could have been more engaged with his story than I actually was.

The Other One: The Long Strange Trip of Bob Weir (2015)
I just don't know how to judge a film like this. The Grateful Dead are/were apparently up there with the most successful and influential rock and roll bands, yet they were well before my time and not really the sort of music I like. If I can't get into the music that dominates such a documentary, then I have to judge the story rather than the songs. As that story of band member Bob Weir is presented as a fairly typical talking heads music documentary, which is fine but nothing out of the ordinary, all I can think to say is you'll probably enjoy it if you're already a fan of such music, or perhaps have hazy LSD fuelled memories of the era. Otherwise it's entirely skippable.

Pee-wee's Big Holiday (2016)
Well I know what a Pee-Wee is now, so there's that. What else there is to take from this I'm not sure, but then it is a film aimed squarely at kids (or at least I hope it is, otherwise I'm highly confused). It stars a very odd and slightly camp man-child named Pee-Wee Herman, who works as a chef in a greasy diner, and wears his grey suit and bright red bow-tie even during food prep. Environmental health would have a field day. He makes an apparently excellent milkshake for a customer who looks like an Abercromie & Fitch model (or perhaps Arsenal footballer Olivier Giroud), and then for reasons that no-one should care about, goes off on his first ever road trip. Though if I may say, he would probably benefit more from a trip to the doctor - if a grown man in the real world behaved like this he'd probably be sectioned under the mental health act. The highlight of the film is when he gets trapped down a well; the lowlight is when he's rescued. My best advice would be to plonk your youngest children in front of the tv, lock the door behind you, and if after a few minutes you don't hear them smashing windows or banging down the door to get out again, then they're probably enjoying it. Or, like me, are sitting in bewildered silence.

Print the Legend (2014)
Now we’re back on more solid ground with the story of the companies competing to win the race in the world’s next great technological revolution: 3D printing. I’m sure just hearing those words has got your adrenaline going, but if it hasn’t, let me just say that this is a more interesting film than it sounds. It centres mostly around Bre Pettis, CEO of 3D printer company MakerBot, and the guy dubbed by the media as the next Steve Jobs. He does not come out of the film at all well, with scathing character assessments from many of his former associates and employees, who accuse him of selling out his principles in the scramble to become the next Apple. Despite being about technology, it’s actually a film about the people behind it, and the other person who stuck out was Cody Wilson, an easily dislikable man who believes the best use of the technology is to print working handguns and freely allow anyone to make these at home. Because that’s going to end well. It’s still hard to get my head around the idea that you can press print and a functional 3D object will appear before your eyes, from a unit you can already have in your home, and at the top end it’s already being used to manufacture things like artificial limbs. Because this is such a revolutionary invention that in future could become a significant part of a lot of peoples’ lives, I think the film will appeal to quite a range of viewers, even those who are not technologically minded.

The Ridiculous 6 (2015)
For every person who loves Adam Sandler movies, there is another who loathes them. Those in the latter category would no doubt have been dismayed when he signed an exclusive four film deal with Netflix, and this is the first of them. For what it's worth, I think there is a place in the world for Sandler's movies, not everything has to be high art and sometimes the brain just needs to switch off and watch something fun and silly. That's exactly what he's done here, a good old comedy western absolutely rammed with childish humour, exceptionally stupid characters, and as with all his films, a parade of familiar cameos. Mark Kermode, probably the Roger Ebert of British film critics, has a six-laugh rule for a comedy to qualify as funny, and I found it comfortably passed that test. The story itself is solid enough, as a fan of the genre I've certainly seen many poorer western script ideas than this, with Sandler and his five oddball brothers setting off on a trek through the plains to save their kidnapped father (Nick Nolte). I'm not claiming this is a work of greatness, I cannot emphasise enough just how childish the humour gets, but if you disengage brain and go in without preconceived cynicism then it's enjoyably silly nonsense. In a way, this film shows how traditional measures of a film's success - box office numbers and critic reviews - are of little relevance to Netflix; The Ridiculous 6 was predictably slated by the mainstream media yet quickly became the most-watched film in Netflix history (comparing films during the first 30 days of release).

The Short Game (2013)
You know Anna Kournikova, professional pretty lady and part-time tennis player? Turns out her little brother also has a talent for sport, in fact being the best 8 year old tennis player in the world. What this documentary does is follow him and a selection of other ridiculously gifted young golfers competing in an event to become world champion for their age group. I didn't even know there was such a thing, but it does explain why so many golfers nowadays are winning major professional tournaments by their early 20's. Due to their age, it's Mum or Dad acting as caddy, and the most interesting aspect of the film was seeing the difference between the pushy parent driving the child, and in some cases the pushy child driving the parent. Some of the kids are funny and very likeable, others are precocious and probably enough to put anyone off the idea of having children for life. Unless of course you happen to have given birth to a child good enough to succeed in a sport that could make them a multi-millionaire, in which case they're your pension and you'll put up with anything. Funnily enough none of the parents mention that.

Special Correspondents (2016)
Oh dear. If I could give one piece of advice to any comedy film writer, it would be: at least try making it funny. Sadly, this is desperately lacking in laughs. Ricky Gervais and Eric Bana are radio journalists sent to cover a story in war torn Ecuador, who then fail to actually make it out of the US, and instead are forced to fake their radio reports from an attic. As their stories escalate out of control, the film slides away towards a trite, predictable, slushy conclusion that tries to echo Woody Allen but gets nowhere close. Eric Bana in no way, shape or form can carry off a comedy role like this, and it’s beyond me what attracted the usually excellent Kelly MacDonald to such an underwritten and insultingly old-fashioned female role. Now I like Gervais when he's on form, and to be fair there were a one or two moments where I did nearly raise a smile, but they were all when he slipped into David Brent (The Office) mode. Yet if I wanted to watch The Office, I’d just watch The Office. Aside from those few instances, the whole thing is spirit-crushingly unfunny, which is especially disappointing when Gervais as both a writer and actor has proved in the past he can produce so much better than this. I hope Netflix asked for their money back.

The Square (2013)
In the first of two excellent Netflix documentaries about citizens of a nation staging a revolution, we follow the mass protests that escalated into bloody violence after the downfall of the Egyptian President. It wouldn’t be accurate enough to describe the scenes filmed on the ground as violent, more the police and army staging all-out war against the initially peaceful protesters. To give some idea, we hear about and witness army tanks being deliberately ploughed into crowds, torture, murder, bullets and tear gas being fired at will. I think the reason why films like this matter is that they tell important stories that we don't really hear about in the news, or at least only briefly before moving on to the next thing. It means that the story stays alive and ensures the cause of the people fighting for justice in their country isn't being permanently ignored. Having said that, as a film watching experience I did find the other similar film on the list, Winter on Fire, far more of a must-see.

Team Foxcatcher (2016)
If you've seen last year's Foxcatcher, starring Steve Carrell and Channing Tatum, then this will ring a lot of bells. Using a combination of home camcorder footage and interviews, this new documentary reveals the actual story of John E. du Pont, the high profile leader and benefactor of the USA wrestling team. A paranoid and unstable individual, this is an effective examination of his character leading up to the tragic circumstances that he is now best known for. If you're interested in the story and don't know anything about it, I would actually recommend seeing last year's film first, as this doc reveals the end of his story in the opening minutes (and is actually even in Netflix's description). Witnessing the actual people involved in the events did underline what a good job the actors in the prior dramatisation had done, especially Carrell who got du Pont's look, mannerisms and even his walk just right. The problem with releasing this so soon after such a high profile Hollywood movie is that the tale is very familiar, so even though it's interesting, it’s impact is lessened. That's not really a fault of the director though, only a fault of timing.

Tig (2015)
Tig Notaro is a standup comedian. She got seriously ill, recovered, then her mother died, and then she got cancer. Most people would fold by that point, instead she went the other way. She got up on stage and did a groundbreaking standup routine about her cancer, which made her an overnight sensation. Making light of her situation in front of a room full of strangers is a remarkable way of dealing with it personally, as well as helping others to understand what she's going through, and this is enhanced by the effective way in which the film is put together. Crossing back and forward between her interviews, hospital visits, personal life and clips of her comedy routine brings lightness to a heavy subject, and I think it would be cathartic viewing for anyone who has (or knows someone who has) experience of serious illness. In fact in that scenario I would say this becomes essential viewing, her positivity and self-mocking make her a very amiable, and probably to a lot of people, inspiring person. Crucially for a comedian though, she's also funny.

“They only comprise in killing
The innocent and the old
With guns and ammunition
They offer peaceful plans
And all the while the war is waiting
For our honor to be sold
But oh no, we will not go”
Virunga (2014)
The above lyrics are translated from the absolutely fantastic song, “We Will Not Go” by J. Ralph, that bookends Virunga. You can listen to it on Youtube, but I strongly recommend hearing it within the context of what is a fascinating documentary. Deep in the Virunga National Park, in Africa’s Congo, resides the world’s last remaining mountain gorillas. The most intelligent, beautiful, funny and human-like creatures you are ever likely to see (they even eat Pringles!), they are protected from the dangers of the outside world by a small group of park rangers, and this is their story. Except it isn’t that simple. The animal sanctuary is in the middle of a highly unstable conflict zone, and as the story unfolds, we witness the the worst aspects of human nature happen around them and to them. Poachers are a constant threat, and there are a few scenes I found very difficult to watch, in which these despicable people left their mark. All for the sake of a few dollars. There are many other layers to the story, with tank battles breaking out around the habitat of these poor animals, and a young French journalist investigating possible corruption amongst organisations operating in the area. I don’t often watch animal documentaries but I was enormously impressed with this one, the way it’s been put together provides an eye-opening contrast between the innocence and beauty of nature, and the appalling cruelty and stupidity of humans at their worst. Having said that, the care and love that the rangers have for the animals they’re working so hard to protect equally shows humanity at it’s best. The filmmakers haven’t just produced an important film, they’ve produced a very good one, and as I said it’s things like the music and quality of the cinematography that elevate it. I also see that Leonardo DiCaprio is down as Executive Producer, I’m never entirely sure what that involves but if it brings more people on board then it’s a positive thing.

What Happened, Miss Simone? (2015)
I knew Nina Simone had a unique voice and unique songs; I didn't know she also had a unique life. Another of Netflix's eye-opening documentaries tells the story of that life, from the early days performing in bars purely as a way to make money, through to her heavy involvement in civil rights campaigning. Her music became increasingly political and dominated by the theme of inequality, and at the same time privately suffering an abusive personal life that led to deep bouts of depression and anger that others found difficult to handle. It's an insightful and poignant look at the life of someone who on the face of it was gifted with the sort of genius that should have led to a dream life, yet instead left her unfulfilled, angry, and towards the end, a little broken. She was a genius though, the many fantastic concert clips included here do prove that beyond doubt.

Winter on Fire: Ukraine's Fight For Freedom (2015)
In 2013, Ukrainian President publicly committed to taking the country into the European Union, a move that the Ukrainian people saw as an essential step towards freedom. Instead he went behind their backs and signed a trade agreement with Vladimir Putin's Russia. This led to a mass revolt by the public, tens of thousands gathered in protest, in an uprising that would turn the streets into a warzone. This oustanding documentary presents footage captured at the heart of these scenes, and so night after night we see peaceful protesters being brutally attacked, beaten and even killed by the police and military under the instruction of the President. The behaviour of those employed to uphold the law is disgusting and so unnecessarily violent against people who simply wanted to exercise their right to protest injustice. Films are often praised for having great cinematography, but most pale into insignificance when compared with what we see here - camera operators literally putting their lives on the line to get the footage, right in the middle of atrocious battles with explosions, tear gas and gunfire going off all around. Before this film I had never heard a word about this conflict, and I came out of it with a newfound admiration and respect for the people of a nation who had the courage to take a stand and try to bring down a government who no longer represented them. The film proves that if Netflix continues to fund and give a voice to the filmmakers going after vital real life stories that need to be told, and that other studios are shying away from, it has the opportunity to become a major player in shaping, expanding and breaking new ground in the documentary genre.

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