This isn’t exactly breaking news, but after its gambit last year to become a major player in financing top-end feature films — centered on Alfonso Cuarón’s multiple Oscar-winner Roma — Netflix takes an even bigger stride in 2019. Two of its newest streaming films, following brief theatrical runs, are already racking up end-of-year critics’ awards. They’re likely to be all over the Oscars too.
Let’s get the big guy out of the way first. Martin Scorsese has never made a bad movie. Even his coke-fueled New York, New York was, at its worst, a fascinating mess. But nothing he’s done in a long time has been as good as The Irishman. The mournful epic caps a mob-based quartet of films preceded by Mean Streets, GoodFellas and Casino. It’s the culmination and epitaph for all of them.
Longtime Scorsese actor Robert De Niro returns for a decade-spanning saga based on the unreliable 2004 memoir I Heard You Paint Houses by Frank Sheeran. De Niro plays Frank, who, from the lonely abandon of his nursing home, recounts his transformation from a grifting Pennsylvania truck driver to a soldier in both the Bufalino crime family and the Teamsters. In the former, his mentor is Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci, in a quiet, dangerously insinuating performance); in the latter, it’s Teamster chief Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino, who’s good but still playing, yeah, Al! Freakin! Pacino!).
With a standout supporting cast — including a pugnacious Stephen Graham as Hoffa’s main nemesis and Anna Paquin as Frank’s quietly appalled daughter (making the most of the character’s near-silence), The Irishman tracks Sheeran’s ultimate claim that he became both Hoffa’s best pal and chosen assassin. Whether you buy his story or not, it’s compelling. The movie is almost four hours long. You could watch it in segments, but I’d suggest you follow Scorsese’s own recommendation and immerse in the drama in one go. (As for the digital de-aging of the actors, it’s weird at first, but you get used to it.)
The other great Netflix movie is Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story, starring a never-better Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson (though Laura Dern steals every scene she’s in). The story begins with a lovely dual montage of New York theater director Charlie (Driver) and actress wife Nicole (Johansson) recounting all the things they love about each other. Turns out that’s because they’re in mediation for divorce.
They’re a creative couple with a young son and competing interests. MacArthur Grant winner Charlie wants to stay in New York and keep doing his edgy off-Broadway stuff. Nicole wants to return to her native Los Angeles and pursue onscreen work. Enter the divorce lawyers, led by a hilarious and scary Dern as the smiling shark that Nicole hires. (Charlie, at various times, is represented by Alan Alda and Ray Liotta.)
As in most of his films, including The Squid and the Whale and the previous Netflix original The Meyerowitz Stories, Baumbach is interested in complex, literate, artistic people with difficulty hanging onto their marriages. Marriage Story can make you take sides with one or the other spouse. That’s missing the point. Writer-director Baumbach has a bigger picture, yet very simple idea at work here: Everyone has his/her reasons, and nobody wants to be a bad person. Sharp but humane, gorgeously acted, the new movie might inspire you to rewatch that other great divorce drama, Kramer vs. Kramer. That’s not such a bad takeaway.
Mike Birbiglia: The New One
While on the marriage-parenthood topic, the filmed Broadway show Mike Birbiglia: The New One is a charmingly wry look at the deeply imperfect (emotionally and medically) stand-up’s adjustment to becoming a first-time father. And since Thanksgiving is over, you might be tempted by the three-part (but very short) German melodrama Holiday Secrets, a time-spanning saga of three generations of women coming to terms with, yes, family secrets. It promises more than it delivers, but that family home, teetering like a fortress on the edge of the ocean, is gorgeous.
The big Netflix news of the past month is season three of The Crown, introducing a new cast as the monarchs previously played by Claire Foy and Matt Smith as Queen Elizabeth II and Philip, Duke of Edinburgh. Oscar winner Olivia Colman and Tobias Menzies now take on the roles, and the 10-episode season is, if anything, richer than those that came before.
Crucial support comes from Helena Bonham Carter, replacing Vanessa Kirby as the glorious mess known as Princess Margaret (who gets two full episodes focusing on her louche escapades). Newly significant players are Josh O’Connor as an eager, flawed Prince Charles and a haughty-yet-practical Erin Doherty as his kid sister, Princess Anne.
Possibly the least important character in season three is the queen herself, but Colman — in repose and nailing the perversely clipped royal tongue — is as brilliant as ever. Menzies’ Philip is the real revelation as he comes to terms with an eccentric, holy mother he’s resented all his life in one episode, and (in possibly the season’s best episode) suffering a midlife crisis through the prism of the 1969 moon landing. He’s insufferable, snobbish and deeply wounded from one moment to the next. The good news is all of the new cast members are expected to return for season four, as is the show’s key player, writer-creator Peter Morgan.
Dolly Parton’s Heartstrings
A new Netflix series is Dolly Parton’s Heartstrings. Let me first say this: Any podcast listener who is not following Jad Abumrad’s ongoing, nine-part audio series Dolly Parton’s America should start right away. It’s a smart, informative, always surprising deep-dive into the life and sometimes overlooked skills of the singer-songwriter.
I’d been listening to the first few episodes of it when I turned to Netflix’s buzzkill series. I managed to make it through one full episode and half of another, each a dramatized take on a Parton song. Based on the full one I watched, “Jolene,” the show is a flatly shot, thinly acted, secondhand piece of work that would live more comfortably on Lifetime or the Hallmark Channel.
I couldn’t stomach it, though I think in its middle-of-the-road approach to cozy life lessons, the show is doing exactly what it intends to do. You may like it. A friend of mine did. And hey, Dolly — she’s in charge of the series — is known for being the rare figure who can unite just about any person in this polarized nation. I just don’t want to feel so bored while I’m being united.
Did I mention Amazon Prime yet? No, because the lickings have been slim. The only notable addition is the stand-alone movie The Report, starring Adam Driver (again!) in the fact-based tale of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s study of how the hell the United States got into the business of torture (oh, excuse me, enhanced interrogation) after the start of the Iraq War.
A terrific cast includes Annette Bening (as Senator Dianne Feinstein), Jon Hamm, Corey Stoll and Maura Tierney. It’s intelligently made, but writer-director Scott Z. Burns’ script can give you whiplash as it constantly leapfrogs back and forth in its timeline. And honestly, when it’s almost impossible to get away from current politics, revisiting this other recent historic disaster is a difficult choice.
For political complications of an entirely fantastic — and fantastical — kind, HBO spins out two of the best series I’m watching, both heading toward the final episodes of their first seasons.
Watchmen, a 33-year-later expansion of Alan Moore’s groundbreaking graphic novel, shouldn’t even work. Start with the fact that Moore refuses to have anything to do with it. We’re in an alternate-reality version of America again, but while the Cold War was the central topic in the book, our nation’s ingrained racism is the root of the narrative here.
Set in contemporary Tulsa (with a great deal of the series shot in Georgia), it focuses on Regina King as Angela Abar, secretly a police detective and, even more secretly, a masked vigilante known as Sister Night. I can’t begin to go into the smart, mind-bending complications the show, created by Damon Lindelof (Lost, The Leftovers), detonates. But it’s an example of our current golden age of television.
His Dark Materials
Based on the beloved Philip Pullman books, His Dark Materials corrects the visually beautiful but garbled attempt to put the first book onscreen with 2007’s The Golden Compass. Like Watchmen, the show draws us into another alternate reality, a world like our own but different in subtle (and not so) ways. An example is the presence of daemons, talking animals attached to every human and acting as an extension of their consciousness and soul. His Dark Materials follows a pubescent girl named Lyra (a fine Dafne Keen) as she tries to solve the mysterious abduction of countless children her own age. The story takes on alternate universes, fascist religious orders, witches, armored polar bears and the very essence of love. Take a look.
ALSO WORTH NOTING:
Finally, two footnotes:
- Kenny Leon’s acclaimed Central Park production of Much Ado About Nothing is streaming via PBS video, updated to Atlanta in 2020 with an African American cast.
- Finally, she returns. Amazon Prime gifts us with a third season and eight new episodes of the award-winning The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel — the best original programming it offers. It’s time to go back half a century to Greenwich Village and the Gaslight Cafe. The new season begins today (December 6).
Still catching up? Use our November column as a guide.
Merry binging, everyone.