While other streaming platforms continue to build their libraries, nothing comes close to Netflix right now in terms of original series and films. Amazon Prime, in particular, seems to be going through a dry spell. So, while it has some feature films in its library worth a look, I didn’t find anything new in the Empire Bezos Built to write about this time around. It’s pretty much all Netflix.
As a longtime lover of documentaries, I was happy to take the deep-dive into a couple of Netflix’s long-form docs. The biggest recent buzz-getter is the six-part series Wild Wild Country, and for good reason. Produced by indie stalwarts Jay and Mark Duplass, it’s the epic tale of the culture war between the white conservative residents of tiny Antelope, Oregon, and the hundreds of international followers of guru Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh. Relocating their ashram from India, they poured into Antelope, bought a 60,000-acre ranch outside the town limits, renamed it Rajneeshpuram, and vowed to turn it into a self-sustaining city powered on free love.
In the early episodes of Country, you may side with the Rajneeshees. Their idealism is initially appealing, whereas the puritanical citizens of Antelope mainly seem scandalized that they can hear the newcomers having sex. (Sound carries in the wilderness.) But your loyalties are bound to shift as the documentary focuses increasingly on Ma Anand Sheela. The bright-eyed personal secretary for the Bhagwan, Sheelah is a petite enforcer and fixer who delights in antagonizing the locals and manipulating the law to benefit the Bhagwan. She’s a pure sociopath. Throw in what appears to be the politically motivated salmonella poisoning of a neighboring town and a couple of cases of attempted murder, and the story lives up to the double “wild” in its title.
Propelled by ample vintage video footage from local and national news covering the situation at the time, the documentary also benefits from contemporary interviews — with Sheela, a couple of ashram members who remain loyal to the cause, and a couple who recall how their faith in the Bhagwan was replaced by horror and the growing suspicions that their spiritual leader was a petty opportunist.
Another longform Netflix documentary, Bobby Kennedy for President (four episodes) is also worth the time commitment — though it might depress you once you realize how much yet how little has changed in the 50 years since his assassination.
When he announced his presidential candidacy in 1968, many felt Kennedy was the heir of Camelot, a righteous champion who could realize the national dream derailed by his big brother’s murder in 1963. Anyone who felt that way first had to forget that he’d worked alongside Joseph McCarthy and wiretapped MLK’s private phone calls as Attorney General. But in the years afterward, transformed by the death of JFK, Bobby Kennedy underwent a spiritual-social awakening. He reached out to the impoverished black and brown populations and met with America’s poorest, from Mississippi to Appalachia. The palpable sorrow that had emanated from him for years turned into hope.
Well, we know how that ended. One drawback of the documentary is that it covers Kennedy’s murder in the third episode. The fourth includes a fair amount of wheel-spinning as it focuses on the trial of Sirhan Sirhan and rumors of a conspiracy behind the assassination. (Nothing much comes of this.) The power of the documentary is melancholy as it reminds us of what might have been. With its 1960s clips of riots in the streets and police brutality against people of color, some of the footage looks long ago, while some of it looks all too contemporary.
Moving to a new (well, rebooted) Netflix original series, I’ve watched half of the 10 episodes of Lost in Space. If I were a kid I probably would’ve finished the season by now, instead of taking a break after five; it’s pretty decent.
The updated saga of the intergalactic family Robinson features some savvy upgrades. Eldest daughter Judy (Taylor Russell) is a mixed-race half-sister to Penny and Will, and their mom Maureen (Molly Parker) is the engineering brain of the clan, rather than the foil-wearing housewife of the original ’60s show.
The female empowerment further extends, sort of, to a gender change for the devious Dr. Smith, here played by Parker Posey. The trouble is, though Posey is always a surprising, sly actor, the new Dr. Smith makes no real psychological sense. She’s a coward one minute, a flat-out murderer the next, then suddenly she’s giving warm, sisterly advice to young Will. I’ll eventually tune back in for the rest of the season — if only to see if they ever find a way to resolve this character’s multiple-personality problem.
Heading into subtitle-land, I can sorta-kinda-halfway recommend The Chalet. A modern variation of And Then There Were None and The Most Dangerous Game, the six-part mystery unfolds in a tiny village in the French Alps, a onetime tourist attraction that’s now a virtual ghost town. A burst of fresh energy comes with the arrival of a throng of young people, some who grew up there, returning for a wedding. But weird stuff starts to happen. A landslide destroys the bridge that connects the village to the rest of civilization, and then . . . people start turning up murdered.
Like two other recent European series — Dark and Tabula Rasa — this one toggles between two time frames: now, and 20 years ago. The key to the murders seems to hinge on a family who came to the village in the 1990s, a struggling novelist father, his wife (who grew up there) and their two children, a teen boy and a much younger girl. They rented the chalet, where, in the current time period, the members of the wedding party huddle together in dread of the unseen killer(s).
You’ll be one step ahead of the mystery, especially since the series delivers a bloody clue in the opening minutes of the first episode. Even when you suss out who’s behind the mayhem, good luck trying to figure out how the murders are accomplished, logistically, since all of the suspects and potential victims are usually sharing the same tight quarters. It doesn’t add up, but, hey, the mountain scenery is swell.
Meanwhile, Germany’s Charité takes us to 1888 Berlin and the hospital of the title. Daughter of a doctor who died when she was young, Ida (Alicia von Rittberg) works as an apprentice nurse at the facility — though she dreams of becoming a doctor herself. The problem? Germany at the time was the only European nation forbidding women from studying medicine.
If you were one of the few viewers who stuck through the two seasons of PBS’s ambitious but uneven original series Mercy Street, about a hospital in Richmond during the Civil War, you’ll feel right at home here. But Charité is better written and acted, touching on a range of issues from gender inequality, anti-Semitism, addiction, repressed lesbianism, religiosity and class divisions – all without coming off as just a soap opera in period drag. Nothing can replace Babylon Berlin in my heart, but Charité is the best new German series I’ve encountered since then.
I also checked out a few Netflix original films. These are the sorts of movies that have been exiled to the small screen, now that studios and multiplexes are only interested in tent-pole, comic-book flicks like the latest Avengers. Streaming is now the go-to source for the sort of small, human-scaled dramas we used to watch in theaters, even as recently as a few years ago.
Back then, a movie like Kodachrome might have earned end-of-year awards talk, at least for one of its actors. Ultimately, it’s not a very good flick. But it features a splendidly nasty performance by Ed Harris. As in 2002’s The Hours (for which, yes, he earned an Oscar nomination for best supporting actor), he plays a furious, ailing man.
Here he’s famous photographer Ben, dying of liver cancer, who sends his private nurse Zoe (Elizabeth Olsen, smart and vivacious) to contact his estranged son Matt (SNL’s Jason Sudeikis, one of two comic actors going serious in a Netflix film). Ben wants Matt to drive him to Kansas to have some old film developed at the very last store still processing Kodachrome film. Matt resists, since he’s refused to have anything to do with his dad for 10 years. But hey, you know the road trip is inevitable. Alas, so is a lot of second-hand dialogue about father-son grievances. But Sudeikis does a credible job, and Harris has some powerful scenes.
Another example of an actor better known for comedy taking a serious route, 6 Balloons stars Broad City’s Abbi Jacobson as Katie, who’s trying to put together a surprise birthday party for her boyfriend. The huge complication comes in the form of her brother, Seth (Dave Franco, also working the other side of the comedy fence). The family black sheep with a history of heroin addiction and stints in rehab, Seth greets Abbi with his toddler daughter in tow (played by two ridiculously charismatic young sisters) and that old monkey freshly perched on his back.
Unfolding in what feels like real time, the brief movie follows Katie as she drives Seth around LA, trying to check him into a detox facility, but facing complications with every attempt. The movie is modest and honestly scaled — adult in the best sense. Its leads are perfectly believable as siblings who’ve been through a lot together but may be veering toward a dead end.
Very far removed from this film’s social-realistic tone, Ravenous is an interesting Canadian approach to the zombie genre. Set in isolated woods and farmland, it picks up some weeks after a flood of the undead has washed over the cities. Now, a dozen or so locals hole up in trailers or farmhouses, always on the alert for any rustle of footsteps in the underbrush that signal the approach of some brain eaters. The movie isn’t entirely effective. The rhythm it sets — long, poetic shots of greenery, interrupted by a sudden, bloody scare — gets repetitive quickly. But give it credit for trying something new.
Speaking of monsters, of the human kind, I did find an Amazon Prime miniseries of interest, but it’s far from new. Secret Smile was made in 2005, and looks it (the image is a long way from HD). The selling point for me was star David Tennant, well before his stints in Doctor Who and Broadchurch. Though the drama is over 10 years old, it’s pretty relevant for our #MeToo era.
Kate Ashfield plays Miranda, a London architect who has a one-night stand then a 10-day romance with the underemployed Brendan (Tennant). He seems a nice enough guy, until she finds him letting himself into her flat with a spare key and reading her old diaries. Breaking up with him is only the start of worse things as he finds new, stalkery ways to insert himself into her life. The three-part series may have you yelling at the screen as Miranda puts up with way too much craziness. But the drama is a damning testament to the ways women 13 years ago, and now, were sometimes willing to acquiesce in their own victimization simply to be seen as “a good girl.” Don’t worry, as ludicrous as the way things turn out, the end is satisfying.
Delving into the streaming movie library at Amazon Prime, I’m in a sci-fi’ish, 1970s mood, so I’m looking forward to re-watching Carrie, with Sissy Spacek in one of her first and best performances as the telekinetic teen in Brian De Palma’s deathless 1976 movie. I’m also keen to revisit John Carpenter’s 1981 dystopian romp Escape from New York, which predicted the city would become an impoverished, lawless haven for the world’s biggest crooks (pretty prescient except for the “impoverished” part). Kurt Russell plays eye-patched Snake Plissken, sent to max-security Manhattan to rescue the US president. And if I’m still wanting to go with the dystopian theme, I might dive into 1984’s 1984 with the late Richard Burton and John Hurt.
On the other hand, if you’re in the mood for something a little more recent and goofy — and since I doubt you saw it in the theaters, because nobody did — you may want to check out Logan Lucky. Steven Soderbergh came out of retirement to direct this deep-fried comedy about a couple of brothers (Channing Tatum and Adam Driver) who aren’t so smart but are pretty wily. The tale of their attempt to pull off a heist during a NASCAR race also stars Daniel Craig, Riley Keough, Seth MacFarlane and a bunch of others. It’s a guilty pleasure, but it’s definitely a pleasure.