Archive for category: Netflix Canada Picks

Girlhood [2003]; Girlhood [2014] (Netflix Canada picks)

03 Jul
July 3, 2015

Girlhood – Liz Garbus, USA, 2003, 82 minutes

Girlhood (Bande de filles) – Céline Sciamma, France, 2014, 113 minutes

It was a pretty savvy move by Netflix, if it was a conscious decision, to add these two films around the same time as Richard Linklater’s Boyhood. Then again, documentarian Liz Garbus’ most recent project—a revealing Sundance-opening Nina Simone doc—hit Netflix a few days ago, and Céline Sciamma’s Bande de filles had its very low-profile post-festival US theatre run from January to May, so both films have their own reasons to be freshly available online.

Neither one was created, of course, in response to Linklater’s excellent film (and note that “bande des filles” translates more literally as “girl gang”), but both have much to say about how adolescence looks from the othered side of race, class, and indeed gender privilege lines.

Garbus’ 2003 documentary (shot on 16mm, and presented in an unimpressive SD transfer) follows two Baltimore girls for three years, one a convicted (at the age of 12) killer, as they attempt to re-integrate with society after their release from a juvenile detention facility. As it covers the years 1999-2002, it plays, in a way, as a real-life prologue to The Wire‘s depiction of Baltimore’s corners. Upon release, the doc received scattered criticism for trying too hard to find an upbeat ending. Perhaps that’s fair, but I found these parallel stories so engrossing that I began to wonder where they are now—and it turns out that both Shanae Watkins and Megan Jensen have occasionally re-emerged in the public eye.

Céline Sciamma’s fictional portrayal of life in the banlieue seems tame at times by comparison (when these characters talk about having “iced” or “wasted” other girls, they mean beating them in a more-or-less fair fistfight), but it is a satisfying coming-of-age story that moves from bleakness to adolescent joy and points between. The French social safety net is a mostly invisible failure here, and at times you wonder how the film will balance this protagonist’s lack of opportunities with the need to represent her agency. But in fact it finds a thoughtful, realistic and moving balance.


Carlos; Something in the Air (Netflix Canada picks)

26 Jun
June 26, 2015

Carlos – Olivier Assayas, France/Germany, 2010, 165 minutes

Something in the Air (Après Mai) – Olivier Assayas, France, 2012, 122 minutes

As tense and fascinating as any historical-political drama you’ve ever seen, Carlos follows the life of Venezuelan terrorist Ilich Ramírez Sánchez, a.k.a. Carlos the Jackal, from his first attacks in 1973 until his arrest in 1994. Now more than ever we are living in the midst of a cultural obsession with terrorism, but this film provides a glimpse of what a different cultural meaning the concept had pre-9/11 (all while drawing a number of a lines of connection to our moment). It occurs to me that Assayas as a director has much in common with Steven Soderbergh—bringing considerable art and incredible technique to a film that also happens to be thoroughly accessible.

At 165 minutes the version on Netflix is the shortest version available, as Carlos was also cut as a five-and-a-half hour miniseries. Both versions were showered with awards in 2010. You might think that the short version would inevitably have awkward jumps but Assayas is not above throwing name-and-description titles on the screen each time he introduces a new key historical figure, which makes it dead simple to follow the various twists and turns, and eliminates the need for unnatural expository dialogue. The result is a film that moves briskly and clearly from one chapter to the next.

In Après Mai, a.k.a. Something in the Air, Assayas also revisits the 70s—but his own experience of them. Much more languidly paced, and nowhere near as gripping as Carlos (how could it be), Assayas’ 2012 film looks good, sounds good (thanks to another well-chosen soundtrack), and has an unforced quality lent by his choice of non-professional actors for some of the youth roles (as well as a really excellent performance by Lola Créton who also had a compelling turn in Claire Denis’ Bastards). A nostalgia-infused reflection on his own days as a high-school political activist in France, it manages to touch something genuine in its portrayal of a budding film artist who finds himself simultaneously on the inside and outside of the student revolutionary movements of the times.

I do have one complaint about Netflix’s presentation of Après Mai–the only English subtitling option is SDH, which means that for several minutes of the film that feature English dialogue, there is no good way to turn off the English subtitling and descriptions of sounds. This is pretty poor by Netflix, but if you can tolerate a few minutes of slight annoyance, the film is definitely worth the watch.

The Strange Color of Your Body’s Tears (Netflix Canada picks)

19 Jun
June 19, 2015

Hélène Cattet & Bruno Forzani, Belgium/France/Luxembourg, 2013, 102 minutes

Not for everyone, and not even, necessarily, for giallo fans—even though that is precisely the genre on which this film expertly, but bafflingly, riffs for its duration—I can’t help but single this film out as one of the more unique films in the Netflix catalogue. Written and directed by Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani, the French duo behind 2009’s Amer (a similarly abstracted giallo reinterpretation), Strange Color unfolds episodically with a linking structure that can only be described as cineaste dream-logic. The soundtrack boasts some remarkable music curation including a couple of deep cuts, so to speak, from Ennio Morricone, and the end credits reveal that the film’s audio track borrows a scream from Peter Strickland’s Berberian Sound Studio (a film that is rather more of a straight-up genre homage by comparison). Can images of compulsive nocturnal violence, fear, sex and gore have something to say, extracted from their typical genre context? How you answer that question is probably a pretty good indicator of whether you will appreciate this film.

The Tenant (Netflix Canada picks)

12 Jun
June 12, 2015

Roman Polanski, France, 1976, 125 minutes

Inferior, in my view, to the other two films in Roman Polanski’s “Apartment trilogy” (Repulsion and Rosemary’s Baby are a hard act to follow, it’s true), but not without its own curious charms, The Tenant has long divided opinion. Roger Ebert called it “unspeakably disappointing” upon US release but its reputation has grown over time (J. Hoberman in 2004: “it may be the director’s quintessential movie”). If transgender issues and transphobia are topical right now than so is this film—just don’t expect it to be progressive or forward-thinking, as this is 1976 and Polanski after all. The ending does verge on the ludicrous but no one does paranoia better, and there is a pretty good serving of creepiness and dark humour on offer here—and Polanski does more than serviceable acting work in the lead role. Unfortunately, the only English subtitle option is SDH, so if you don’t understand French your best bet for Netflix viewing is the English audio track, with the occasionally-jarring mismatch of audio with lip movement (and the somewhat annoying fiction of a Paris where everyone speaks English with occasional French accents). Worth a look regardless, especially in the absence of a well-produced DVD/Blu-ray release.

Life Itself (Netflix Canada picks)

05 Jun
June 5, 2015

Steve James, USA, 2014, 120 minutes

It was never likely, with Steve James at the helm, that this adaptation of film critic Roger Ebert’s memoir was going to be a straightforward bio-doc built from talking heads and archival clips and graphics—of course it has all that, but then James is known for his ability to touch something more primal in the narrative mode. But any chance that it would have been a paint-by-numbers enterprise pretty much went out the window when Ebert died five months into filming. Skeptical readings of this film are easy enough to come by—some would see an exchange where, if James owes his career to Ebert’s championing of Hoop Dreams (also viewable on Netflix), here is some hagiographic payback. That view is too reductive for me—and the film is too brutally honest to support it.  For me it’s as if, after all those years of considerately but firmly holding film to the standards of a demanding viewer, Ebert felt he had to keep faith with the viewers of his own portrayal, and allow his private life and personal suffering, and flaws, to be on view in an authentic way. He had a way of spilling too many plot details in his reviews, something that annoyed me for years until I realized that to benefit from his illuminating analyses, I simply had to watch the movies before reading. I can’t help seeing a parallel with this film, which analyses his career after the fact with the same informed directness that Ebert brought to his film criticism. To dismiss its emotional offering, I’d have to be cynical about film itself.

Bastards (Netflix Canada picks)

29 May
May 29, 2015

Claire Denis, France, 2013, 100 minutes

Claire Denis is the sort of director who thinks that the consequences and traces of awful actions are at least as cinematic as the acts themselves, and Bastards makes compelling evidence for that case. This post-neo-noir goes to a grim place, but does so in a way that never descends into torture-porn or indeed porn-porn (notwithstanding one sex scene and an abuse scene that somehow manages simultaneously to be coldly graphic yet circumspect). If you’ve ever seen Denis speak you know that you can feel her integrity from across a room—if there’s anyone I would trust to handle this material, it’s her.

Some abrupt edits and minimal explanation make for some confusing moments (in my case I had a little trouble at first telling the protagonist’s sister and lover apart—so that was awkward). It’s true that more than a few have found this a frustrating watch. There’s no handholding of the viewer, but the final ten minutes or so are abundantly clear, even if you haven’t followed all of the twists along the way. I don’t mind admitting that it took a second viewing for me to fit all of the pieces together, but doing so didn’t substantially shift the film’s meaning—it just made me admire it all the more.

The Gatekeepers (Netflix Canada picks)

22 May
May 22, 2015

Dror Moreh, Israel/France/Belgium/Germany, 2012, 101 minutes

The Gatekeepers has got to be the most politically important film on Netflix, but it also happens to be one of the most fascinating. The film drew plenty of media attention on the 2012 festival circuit and then in release in 2013, putting six former heads of the Israeli secret service Shin Bet on camera for the first time ever, reflecting publicly on their actions and decisions. You might well wonder what would make them agree to the project—McNamara-esque regret, or Rumsfeldian hubris? It turns out to be much more the former, but also a shared concern at the stepwise evaporation of the two-state solution. Director Dror Moreh has taken more than a few cues from Errol Morris when it comes to creating a riveting viewing experience from talking-head interviews, archival photos & videos, and minimal/expressionist re-creations. Even the most skeptical reader of the ex-chiefs’ motives has to admit that they explain extremely well where the illegal settlements came from, and why they make Netanyahu-era Israel incapable of repairing its politics.

Honeymoon (Netflix Canada picks)

15 May
May 15, 2015

Leigh Janiak, USA, 2014, 87 minutes

Yes, this is a movie about something weird happening at a spooky, isolated cabin in the woods, but it is anything but predictable. Director Leigh Janiak’s confessed influences run from the body-horror of Cronenberg and the Alien movies to the paranoia of Rosemary’s Baby and the emotional alienation of Haneke’s Amour, and once you watch this you will know she is not kidding about any of that. It’s pretty clear that she would rather work around the deconstructive edges of genre than simply recycle its phallogocentric core, so it was galling to read that this impressive debut feature wasn’t enough to stir the same kind of offers for bigger projects that seem to magically land on the desks of young male directors with buzzy debuts in the same space. But this week it was announced that she and her screenwriter partner will be taking on a remake of The Craft, so I guess we can stop worrying about where her next pay cheque is coming from. Instead, enjoy this refreshingly creative creep-out—ideally in the comforting company of someone you trust. Or not.

Like Father, Like Son (Netflix Canada picks)

08 May
May 8, 2015

Hirokazu Kore-eda, Japan, 2013, 120 minutes

It can hardly believe it’s been 10 years or so since the Japanese director Hirokazu Kore-eda first came to my attention with the absorbing drama Nobody Knows, in which a family of four children try to hide the fact that they have been abandoned. In Like Father, Like Son, we have a similarly improbable, yet drawn from real life, dramatic hook—two boys have been switched at birth and the error comes to light six years on. As with his other films, the delight comes not from the destination but from the sheer craft of the storytelling. There really is no Western analog for the Kore-eda way of filmmaking—so understated and careful in approach; so fulsome and satisfying in effect. At Cannes in 2013 it was nominated for the Palme d’Or and won the Jury Prize—for me it was quite simply one of the very best films of that year.

Noah (Netflix Canada picks)

01 May
May 1, 2015

Darren Aronofsky, 2014, USA, 139 minutes

Darren Aronofsky’s Noah was such a divider of film-opinion and religious opinion alike that I was rather surprised to notice recently that it had made back three times its production budget in global box office. But the first surprise was seeing it when it was released to theatres—the bombastic trailer (as per usual, excerpting all the trailer-ready lines… “IT BEGINS,” puh-lease) had primed me for a cynical contempt-watch, but instead I was watching something so deeply thought out at every level that I was shocked into pure enjoyment.

I often say that I love spectacle/action movies but they don’t love me back—I’m always disappointed by scripts that are about one-tenth as meticulously engineered as the visual effects. But here we have a screenplay co-written by Harvard-educated neurobiologist Ari Handel, who had been working on the script with Aronofsky for more than a decade, and who clearly has thought deeply about canonical and extra-canonical Hebrew scriptural tradition, existential and ethical philosophy, creation and evolution (bombastic polemic on both sides of that culture war is common—creative mashups of both narratives, not so much), and our present environmental crisis. Recasting the narrative as a LOTR-era fantasy spectacle seems an audacious and insightful move to me, drawing on a close contemporary equivalent to Axial-Age-era myth-making.

The much-commented-upon CGI rock-monsters, the Watchers, have a back-story mined from the obscure ancient texts of 1 & 2 Enoch (not Gnostic writings, despite complaints to that effect from the evangelical right), and the crisis of ethics that transpires on board the ark manages to incorporate the core conflict of the later biblical story of Abraham & Isaac in a way that pushes to a hard point the dire implications of the story of a deity prepared to wipe out nearly all of humanity for its sins. There’s been an onslaught of apocalyptic fictions in the last few decades, from zombie horror to science-fiction Armageddons, and pop-science books describing what our world would be like post-environmental-disaster or post-humanity. In all of them there is a sense, latent or manifest, that if humanity were extinguished, it wouldn’t be completely unjustified. It’s in that context that Noah skillfully defossilizes one of the central quandaries of monotheism, putting it to the viewer as a question of surprising immediacy.