Archive for category: Netflix Canada Picks

Only Lovers Left Alive (Netflix Canada picks)

04 Dec
December 4, 2015

Only Lovers Left Alive – Jim Jarmusch, UK/Germany, 2013, 123 minutes

I kind of dragged my heels getting around to watching Only Lovers Left Alive. Honestly, apart from the two canonical films of the tale of Nosferatu—and, OK, at least one memorable one-liner in the first Blade—I can’t remember truly enjoying a vampire film. Add to that my natural suspicion of an art-house director going “genre” in a late career phase—and natural doubt that there is any point to watching vampires that aren’t scary—and I just couldn’t get past my own skepticism.  Well, the vampires are nothing to fear here, but you also need not fear that Jarmusch has fallen off—there’s enough languorous pacing, laconic wit, and fantastic music to please any Jarmusch devotee. There is also a pair of excellent performances by Tom Hiddleston and Tilda Swinton, set against incredibly atmospheric night-time location shots, and a narrative spiked with pop-culture Easter eggs and surprise gear changes.

Wake in Fright; Quest for Fire (Netflix Canada picks)

27 Nov
November 27, 2015

Wake in Fright – Ted Kotcheff, Australia/USA, 1971, 109 minutes

Quest for Fire – Jean-Jacques Annaud, Canada/France/USA, 1981, 100 minutes

Wake in Fright, summarized by the distributor as “the nightmarish story of a schoolteacher’s descent into personal demoralization at the hands of drunken, deranged derelicts while stranded in a small town in outback Australia,” is a unique fragment of movie history. It has moments of paranoia and confusion that feel like the best science-fiction, horrifyingly real scenes of a cruel nighttime kangaroo hunt, and an awkward detour into homosexuality that in contemporary terms is in some kind of grey zone between memory repression and date rape. So a “quintessential Australian exploitation film,” yes, but one that, in the social identity questions that it opens, evokes shades of its unlikely cinematic cousin Lawrence of Arabia, complete with a protagonist played by Gary Bond, more than convincing as a poor man’s Peter O’Toole. Genuine film classics of the ’70s are few and far between on Netflix, which makes this all the more essential as an add to your watch-list. Netflix is streaming a pristine transfer of the recent meticulous restoration.

Speaking of awkwardness, and shades of science fiction, how about the Canadian-financed and filmed Quest for Fire, which Roger Ebert memorably introduced in his review as “either (a) the moving story of how scattered tribes of very early men developed some of the traits that made them human, or (b) a laughable caveman picture in which a lot of lantern-jawed actors jump around in animal skins, snarling and swinging clubs at one another.” He was surprised at how the film went from “b” to “a” for him, as it pulled him into its world—and so was I. This is a story that seems like it shouldn’t work, and looks like it isn’t going to—and then does. The image quality is not the greatest, with some visible artifacting and damage that mostly settles down after the opening minutes.  It’s more than watchable—probably the same transfer that was used for the 2003 DVD—but here is a film that deserves and could use some restoration work and a high-def release. In the meantime I recommend Netflix (or Shomi—same transfer) as your best viewing option.

Berberian Sound Studio (Netflix Canada picks)

18 Sep
September 18, 2015

Peter Strickland, UK, 2012, 92 minutes

When I saw Peter Strickland’s strange, Lynch-esque love letter to giallo at TIFF 2012, I was quite taken with it, but expressed some reservations about the ending.  I stand by that review but I have to say that watching this film, first at the Bloor Hot Docs Cinema in Toronto, then on Blu-ray at home, it has really held up for me, and is a welcome addition to Netflix. Of the various postmodern giallo mashups we’ve seen in the last few years, for me this is still the best.

Wild (Netflix Canada picks)

11 Sep
September 11, 2015

Jean-Marc Vallée, USA, 2014, 115 minutes

Of all of my Netflix recommendations, Wild might be the one that I have the most reservations about. This film, directed by Quebec’s own Jean-Marc Vallée from a script adaptation by Nick Hornby, is like sitting down for two hours with someone you’re not quite sure about as they tell you their life story—all along you feel that the person is a bit of a bullshitter, but damned if the story isn’t worth hearing. The whole arc of the piece is too elaborately constructed to ring fully true—but then it has those interspersed, grounded moments that really really do. Plus it has a Reese Witherspoon performance that is nailed down from front to back, scores 3/3 Bechdel points, features a musical cameo from Brian Borcherdt, and has bursts of humour that effectively let the excess air out of the spiritual quest stuff. I often have little patience for films that feel too closely locked to their textual source material, but here is a film that occasionally crosses that line only to redeem itself with moments that linger in the memory.

No (Netflix Canada picks)

28 Aug
August 28, 2015

Pablo Larraín, Chile/France/USA, 2012, 118 minutes

Marketing, as it overlaps with public relations—or “communications” as PR now re-markets itself—is a subject that has fascinated me for many years now, particularly for the ethical issues that it raises. I still regularly meet people who decry all marketing and other professional publicity-seeking as inherently evil or compromised, and I often see films that simply and easily confirm those stereotypes—themselves designed to appeal to the lowest common denominator. But here is a film that grapples with the question of whether marketing can be ethical and indeed serve a righteous purpose—in this case the overthrow of a brutal dictator, Augusto Pinochet of Chile, in 1988. Its answer are anything but simple—even as the film insouciantly skateboards to an improbable but somewhat historically accurate triumph, it is clear that victories won are neither complete nor easy. Appealing to contrarians of all stripes, the film also offers another slam-bang performance by Gael García Bernal, as well as its shot-on-analog-video format—complete with CRT-era aspect ratio—that jars at first but brings back the 80’s for anyone who lived through them.

Two Days, One Night (Netflix Canada picks)

07 Aug
August 7, 2015

(Deux jours, une nuit) Jean-Pierre Dardenne & Luc Dardenne, Belgium/France/Italy, 2014, 95 minutes

I haven’t done a statistical analysis but I bet this film was on more critic, newspaper, and magazine top ten lists in 2014 than any film save Boyhood. When we first learned that the Dardenne brothers had cast as huge a star as Marion Cotillard in their latest film, some perhaps wondered whether they were trading in their reliable social-realist aesthetic for a more bankable approach to film, but they needn’t have worried. Cotillard seamlessly inhabits this role of a marginally-employed woman fighting for her job, and the film’s compressed, deadline-driven plot gives her occasion to bring incredible intensity to her performance. Nothing explodes, no scenery is chewed, but the viewing experience is by turns draining and cathartic. Cotillard fully deserved the pile of Best Actress awards she took home for this one—bestowed by the European Film Awards, the National Society of Film Critics, and the New York Film Critics Circle, among others.

We Are What We Are [2010]; We Are What We Are [2013] (Netflix Canada picks)

31 Jul
July 31, 2015

We Are What We Are (Somos lo que hay) – Jorge Michel Grau, Mexico, 2010, 89 minutes

We Are What We Are – Jim Mickle, USA, 2013, 105 minutes

So many remakes, especially the most common kind—English-language versions of foreign-language horror films—seem to exist for reasons that are commercially sensible but artistically redundant. The idea of fixing something that isn’t broken generally offends me, and so I tend to avoid. What’s more, I often balk at awkwardly shallow/ill-thought attempts at transposing a story from one cultural context to another.

But Jim Mickle’s remake of We Are What We Are is a remarkable exception. He takes the general setup of the original—a family of cannibals tries to hold it together after a key member dies—and moves the setting from the slums of Mexico City to small-town America, with fascinating results. It similarly injects the story with enough social realism to make an improbable plot feel believable, but it simplifies the plot somewhat, possibly slowing down the third act a little too much, but paying off with a conclusion that has to be seen to be believed—and will still come as a surprise even if you’ve watched the original.

For its part, the 2010 original by Jorge Michel Grau is nearly as good—perhaps slightly hampered by a couple of plot points that don’t quite work, and by a couple of script passages that feel a little unsure in their character definition. But it, too, winds, with a series of rapid-fire twists, to a remarkable finish. In fact it really doesn’t matter which of the two you watch first—neither film is predictable based on its counterpart, and each has something unique to offer. Good on Netflix for offering up both.

The Punk Singer (Netflix Canada picks)

24 Jul
July 24, 2015

Sini Anderson, USA, 2013, 81 minutes

Snappily edited, and brilliantly music-sequenced, this Kathleen Hanna bio-doc offers a fascinating story that is as much about a personal evolution through feminism as it is about music. Pop culture checkpoints in the film include Hanna contributing the title “Smells Like Teen Spirit” to Kurt Cobain in amusing circumstances, getting punched out by Courtney Love, and getting married to the Beastie Boys’ Adam Horovitz; interview segments include Kim Gordon, Carrie Brownstein, and Joan Jett. Hanna went through years of declining health before finally being diagnosed with Lyme disease, and this project (born via Kickstarter) was perhaps a way for her to explain her multi-year absence from music with some message control. The penultimate section of the film explains the difficulty of getting an accurate diagnosis, perhaps attempting to avoid the perception that her health decline was a failure of self-care (the film edges up against such questions without really opening them). I’m glad she’s back, I hope she’s ok, and I will be watching The Punk Singer again.

The Thin Blue Line (Netflix Canada picks)

17 Jul
July 17, 2015

Errol Morris, USA, 1988, 103 minutes

This documentary owes its outsized reputation not just to its groundbreaking/influential cinematic style, but more than anything to the fact that its indisputable analysis freed the wrongly-convicted Randall Adams, who had been sentenced to life in prison for a cop-killing committed by another man. I’m not sure how well the re-enactment footage has aged (and it was criticized in some quarters upon release), but I continue to be impressed at a certain level with the way that it puts forward the prosecution’s version of the case as a visual question. What’s more, the film inevitably points up the incredible dysfunction of the American justice system, but does so by raising one specific doubt after another, rather than by generalizations and pontifications. After nearly three decades, that kind of faithfulness to the viewer still pleases, as does the remarkable atmospheric score by Philip Glass.

Cinephile note: this is not an impressive transfer, with artifacting, dirt and scratches visible throughout. Those looking for a more pristine presentation might consider the recent Criterion Blu-ray edition, which as it happens is available in the bi-annual Barnes & Noble 50% off Criterion sale, currently in progress.


Foxcatcher; Moneyball (Netflix Canada picks)

10 Jul
July 10, 2015

Foxcatcher – Bennett Miller, USA, 2014, 134 minutes

Moneyball – Bennett Miller, USA, 2011, 113 minutes

In most reviews of Foxcatcher there is very little criticism of what’s actually on screen. The few negative comments tend to focus on what’s not there—and that might be because, for a film that adopts a very linear, stepwise approach to narrating a very strange episode in American social history (no flashbacks, flash forwards, parallel storylines); there is a decided refusal to over-explain. But saying that risks selling short three completely committed performances from Channing Tatum, Mark Ruffalo, and most notably Steve Carell. I can’t praise Carell’s performance highly enough—I’m tempted to compare to other notable cases of big-box-office comedians going serious, like Robin Williams, whose comedic persona you felt was always winking at you, even with the darkest of roles, as in the Insomnia remake. Carell by contrast disappears 100% into the role of the mentally ill heir to the du Pont family fortune, John E. du Pont.

Bennett Miller’s previous film, Moneyball, is, by contrast, and by design, much easier to like. Underdogs are much more sympathetic than deluded overdogs I suppose—and if Brad Pitt’s Billy Beane has surplus cockiness and rough edges, it’s balanced out not only with a charming father-daughter interlude or two, but also by his ready recognition of what Jonah Hill’s analytics nerd Peter Brand brings to the table. Before I re-watched this film on Netflix I found myself wondering whether it would still hold up for me, or whether my warm and fuzzy memories from seeing it in initial release resulted simply from the unexpected pleasure of seeing a “sports movie” that was really about intelligence and integrity. I needn’t have feared—I’d forgotten just how much sheer art went into Moneyball‘s conception and execution. Deserving of special mention is the brilliant musical score by frequent Atom Egoyan collaborator Mychael Danna, to which the film owes much of its mastery of tone.