Archive for the ‘Netflix’ Category

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There has long been talk of applying the choose-your-own-adventure format of children’s storybooks to cinema. Various attempts have been made, largely by blurring the dividing lines between video games and movies, but none that have made significant splashes in the pop culture pond.

And that is what makes “Mosaic” — the new smartphone app-slash-television miniseries by Steven Soderbergh — all the more interesting; not for what it accomplishes but for what it suggests for the future of the medium. Having made my way through most of its episodic chapters and arrived at one of its two conclusions, I would say the story “Mosaic” tells is simply OK — perhaps 3 out of 5 stars if I’m generous — but its structure is fascinating to a degree that elevates the otherwise thin plotting.

The comparison to choose your own adventure books is incomplete, but fair. As a viewer, you’re not able to dictate shifts in plot the way a reader can; instead, you select the perspective of a character to follow through the next sequence of events. I’ve seen other critics describe it as “choose your own *protagonist*,” which is more accurate, as you travel through a static story and ultimately arrive at the same conclusion, albeit with certain pieces of information arriving out of sequence or simply alluded to as off-screen occurrences depending on the route you choose.

 

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But the presentation is also jarring, particularly in the early stages. By way of synopsis, “Mosaic” is a murder mystery, concerned with the whodunit after a celebrated children’s book author, played by Sharon Stone, vanishes following a New Year’s Eve party at her rural estate in “Summit, Utah” (a barely-veiled Park City, which in real life is the county seat of Summit County, Utah).

“Mosaic” doles out its exposition late, and then awkwardly. You start on your path by meeting Stone’s Olivia Lake, and are then presented with a choice between two characters at the end of each chapter — various flashbacks and additional scenes that add clarity are offered as optional detours within chapters — and if you primarily follow Garrett Hedlund’s Joel, as I did, you won’t even know who died, when, or how until quite late in the series.

And because the audience still needs critical information independent of their protagonist selection, Soderbergh is obligated to write in lengthy, momentum-killing monologues that state on-the-nose what has happened just in case you missed it the first time through.

There’s a lot of talent on screen here. In addition to Stone and Hedlund the cast includes Paul Reubens and Beau Bridges in non-POV roles. But no one really does much of anything, as the central gimmick of “Mosaic” means making 15 episodes (roughly 30 minutes each) out of story that can be told in 7.

Soderbergh plans to release a more traditional tv-format through HBO early next year, and I think the actual content of “Mosaic” will be better served that way. But I still wouldn’t recommend watching the show. I would, however, recommend downloading the free “Mosaic by Steven Soderbergh” app for exploration of the selective perspective model.

Why bother? It’s a reasonable question to ask since I don’t think the content is particularly good television. But while the recipe may not have worked out right, there’s no denying that Soderbergh has cooked up something special with “Mosaic.” And with more and more of our television viewing habits shifting away from live broadcasts and toward a binge-able, steaming model, it’s not to much of a stretch to imagine a future where you choose to dwell on the shenanigans of a supporting character a little longer before rejoining the main plot. Or what about a future season of Stranger Things in which you have the option of watching the show in its entirety from Eleven’s perspective, or Mike’s, or a demogorgon?

When the next episode in a series is just a mouse-click away, why limit audiences to a linear progression? In any movie or tv show there are scenes and footage that end up on the cutting room floor. Why not let viewers choose their own 13-step path to the finish line. We’ve already scene this is some DVD and Blu-Ray releases, where a click of the remote inserts a previously-deleted scene. “Mosaic,” in essence, is the natural evolution of the extended cut, in which there is no definitive “version” of a story.

Maybe I’m overreacting, and the many failings of “Mosaic” will put an end to this type of experimentation. I doubt it. I think Soderbergh, and others like him, are just getting started. So download the app, and check it out.

Grade: C+

Mosaic by Steven Soderbergh is currently available as a free download on iOS and Android devices.

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I Don’t Feel At Home in This World Anymore

We typically have to wait almost a year — or more — for the public at large to see the big winner from the Sundance Film Festival. But not only is “I Don’t Feel At Home in this World Anymore” out less than two months after snagging the Grand Jury prize in Park City, its also viewable from the comfort of your home due to Netflix scoring the distribution rights.

Starring Melanie Lynskey and Elijah Wood, IDFAHITWA sees a woman shaken out of a rut after a break-in at her home triggers a compulsion to pursue justice. It’s also the directorial debut of Macon Blair, best known for his acting collaborations with director Jeremy Saulnier (Blue Ruin, Green Room). Blair borrows from Saulnier’s style of minimalist, organic and unflinching violence, but also injects his feature with a heavy doze of sardonic humor. The result is something like a marriage of hipster comedy and Coenesque drama and shows a lot of promise for an emerging multi-hyphenate storyteller.

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Mascots

If you’re a fan of Christopher Guest…well, you’ve probably seen Mascots already. But otherwise you should know that the team behind the mockumentaries Best in Show, A Mighty Win and Waiting For Guffman have a Netflix Original film about the cutthroat world of competitive Mascot-ery.

To  be sure, Mascots is a lesser-Guest. But it is still hilarious in its survey of bizarre, pseudo-surrealist characters, like Chris O’Dowd’s Tommy ‘Zook’ Zucarello, who performs as “The Fist” for a hockey team, and whose every action in the musculatured foam hand suit is a master class is sight gags.

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Burn After Reading

Speaking of Coenesque, and lesser-entries, “Burn After Reading” may not be the strongest entry in the Joel and Ethan Coen canon, but don’t let that stop you from its unique pleasures, number one on that list being that fully-committed and unbelievably ludicrous performance of Brad Pitt as a pompadoured buffoon of a personal trainer.

Combining gym rats, DIY sex toys and international espionage in a way that only the Coens can, “Burn after Reading” wrings gallons of humor out of a few ounces of its characters poor decision-making.

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It Follows

The horror genre is experiencing something like a creative renaissance, and just in the nick of time. After 2004’s “Saw,” there was a decade in which horror producers were arms-racing each other to up the ante on torture porn. Thankfully, the trends are showing sign of shifting back toward risk-taking and storytelling, and there’s perhaps no better example of that New-School thank the incredible “It Follows” (which, as you may recall, was among my picks for the 10 best films of 2014).

As both an homage and a satire of classic scarers, It Follows takes the trope that in horror, sex = death, and stretches it to its logical extreme. Its antagonist is a loosly-defined specter that relentlessly pursues its victims as they pass its curse from one to another through sexual intercourse. You can survive by passing “it” on to someone else, but if “it” gets them, then you’re back at the top of the list, being followed again.

The device is incredibly effective as “it” shapeshifts through various forms, visible only to the infected. It causes the viewer to dart their eyes around the screen, looking for anyone who seems out of place, or a little *too* determined in their gait. Layer on top a gorgeous, pulpy style full of neon lighting and synth-pop atmosphere and you have a cinematic experience that leaps above the rest.

 

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Galavant (2015-2016)

Galavant ran for just two short seasons on ABC, racking up 18, 22-minute episodes that are perfect for a quick binge. The show is a medieval musical comedy centered around the adventures of Galavant (Joshua Sasse) and his squire (played by Community’s Magnitude — “Pop POP!”) and filled with self-referential meta humor.

In short, it’s weird, and definitely designed for the music theater crowd. But after a somewhat shaky start the show leans into its surrealism, delivering bigger laughs and winningly absurdist song-and-dance sequences. I would have loved more episodes (not gonna happen) but at the same time the 18 installments are well-planned, making for a coherent and complete story, which is all-to0-rare among cancelled-too-soon television shows. And with only 9 hours of programming, it won’t weigh down you queue for long.

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Dope (2015)

Malcolm (Shameik Moore) is a good kid growing up in a tough neighborhood. A string of circumstances land him and his friends with a bag full of dope (hence the title) and no choice but to turn to some extra-curricular drug dealing in order to get back to their normal geeky ways.

The good-guy-forced-to-do-bad-things is familiar territory, but Dope takes a fresh approach, keeping things on the lighter side and splitting its time between coming of age story and loving tribute to hip-hop and urban culture.

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Better Off Ted (2009-2010)

Another two-season ABC tragedy. Better Off Ted ran for 26 episodes of bizarre workplace shenanigans, based out of a soulless R&D company that produces everything from itchy office chairs that increase employee productivity to perfectly aerodynamic bagels.

The protagonist is Ted Crisp (Jay Harrington) but the strength is really in the ensemble, which includes Arrested Development’s Portia De Rossi and the paired perfection of Jonathan Slavin and Malcolm Berrett as a sort of live-action Beaker and Bunsen. Gone too soon, but never forgotten.

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The Hunting Ground (2015)

On a more serious note, every man woman and child (of an appropriate age for mature themes) should watch The Hunting Ground, a searing documentary about the plague of campus sexual assault. If there’s a better study of the subject in film form, I have yet to see it. Chilling, evocative and necessary.

Trolljegeren (Troll Hunter – 2010)

From Norway, with English subtitles, Troll Hunter is about…well…hunting trolls. And it’s delightful.

Shot in a documentary style, the movie skips around Norway while a ragtag bunch of troll hunters encounter and take care of an escalating string of monsters.

It’s kind of hard to describe. Watch it.

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Spotlight (2015)

If you still haven’t seen last year’s Best Picture winner, then you have no excuse now. Spotlight has arrived on Netflix, so it’s the perfect time for a first, second, or hundredth viewing of the film, which focuses on the dogged work of a team of reporters at The Boston Globe that exposed the widespread cover-up of child abuse  by Catholic priests. It’s heavy stuff, but not without its moments of levity, all of which are performed exquisitely by the talented cast (led by Michael Keaton). And as a fellow journalist, the newsroom scenes are on point.

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The Big Short (2015)

Another of last year’s Best Picture nominees, The Big Short is one of the two best movies ever made about the subprime mortgage crisis (the other being Margin Call, which unfortunately is not streaming on Netflix right now). The economy took a nosedive in 2008, taking  a lot of regular people down with it. A few Wall Street watchers saw the crash coming and bet against the markets, but the hard thing about foresight is being proved right. Watch this movie, and prepare to get angry.

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We Need To Talk About Kevin (2011)

Do you have kids? Do you ever worry that they might grow up to be mass-murdering sociopaths? Don’t worry, they won’t.

Unless they do…

Tilda Swinton stars as a mother who struggles to bond with her son and, over time, is increasingly suspicious of his actions. The film squeezes a suffocating amount of tension out of the inevitability of Kevin’s evolution, and Ezra Miller (the future Flash) stars in a  breakout role that toes too many emotional lines to even describe.

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An Honest Liar (2014)

This biographical documentary looks at the life of  James “The Amazing” Randi, a magician and escape artist who retired from performing and devoted his life to debunking psychics and mystics as charlatans and frauds. He excelled in both careers, going from guest appearances in Happy Days as “The Amazing Randi” to exposing televangelist Peter Popoff, who relied on a hidden earpiece to receive diving inspiration about his flock.

The dual-track of Randi’s legacy is affectionately captured in An Honest Liar, as is the charm and charisma of Randi himself. He is, as they say, a character, and this documentary does him justice.

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Experimenter (2015)

Did you ever hear about that study where people were told to shock a man for giving wrong word-association answers? And they did, for the most part, despite the man’s pleas to stop?

Or perhaps you’ve heard about six degrees of separation, the idea that everyone can be connected through a chain of six people?

They both are the work of Stanley Milgram, a controversial social psychologist with a penchant for devising thought-provoking experimentation on human behavior. His work gets the biopic treatment in Experimenter, starring Peter Sarsgaard, Winona Ryder and a brief appearance by the late Anton Yelchin, who died last month.

 

 

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If you’re anything like me, your Netflix “list” consists mostly of TV series and a few lesser films that you never got around to watching in theaters.

And that’s a shame. While the Netflix library and format lends itself primarily to binge-television viewing, there are some incredible films available that you may have never heard of, or may not notice while scrolling through the auto-aggregated suggestions (No Netflix, I DO NOT want to watch The Ridiculous Six).

So allow me to help. I watch *a lot* of movies (fact check: under-exaggerated), and often as I’m looking through the latest additions to the screening platform I’ll see a title that I caught at Sundance or at my local arthouse and I think “Oh man, if only people know how good that movie is.”

You may not need any suggestions. But if you do, here’s a few that I noticed this month that you should carve out a couple hours for if you haven’t already.

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A.C.O.D (2013)

Don’t let the 50% rating on Rotten Tomatoes fool you, A.C.O.D. (an acronym for Adult Children of Divorce) is an effortless charmer perfect for that rainy night when you’re stuck inside with a bag of chips and not much to do.

It stars Adam Scott in one of his signature uppity-man-child roles as Carter, a commitment-phobic restaurateur forced to broker a cease-fire between his divorced parents in preparation of his younger brother’s wedding. This leads him to confront some buried emotions, personified by Jane Lynch, the child therapist who met with him after the divorce and who, in news to Carter, wrote a very successful self-help book based on Carter and other C.O.D.’s.

The real money is in the ensemble: Richard Jenkins, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Catherine O’Hara. I gave it an A rating when I saw it at Sundance and have been meaning to revisit it myself.

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The Wolfpack (2015)

One of the most fascinating and bizarre documentaries you will ever see, The Wolfpack tells the stranger-than-fiction story of a reclusive New York City family whose sole contact with the outside world is through movies. Growing up in that setting, 6 brothers take to meticulously recreating their favorite films using DIY sets and costuming and in time slowly begin to venture out doors.

85% and certified Fresh on Rotten Tomatoes. I gave it a B+ when I saw it at the 2015 Sundance Festival.

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Charade (1963)

Audrey Hepburn! Cary Grant! Deception and Lies! Charade is not a Hitchcock film but shares a lot of DNA with the Master of Suspense. This film is a one of the classic thrillers (un-memorably remade in 2002, but just watch the original) with heists, murder, double crosses and, again, Audrey and Cary! Watch it.

92% on Rotten Tomatoes.

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The Diving Bell and the Butterly (2007)

In real life, Jean-Dominique Bauby, a former editor of the magazine Elle, suffered a stroke that left him paralyzed, able to communicate only by blinking. Despite this, he wrote an incredible book (also titled The Diving Bell and the Butterfly and  which I would wholeheartedly recommend reading) again, BY BLINKING, which is both an autobiography and a peek into the emotional state of a brilliant man trapped inside the prison of his own body.

The film uses Bauby’s writing as its spine, with narration laid over Bauby’s stroke, hospitalization, re-education and the final days of his life. It’s a beautiful, haunting film, and you’ll find yourself at the local library soon after picking up the book.

94% and certified fresh on Rotten Tomatoes.

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Primer (2004)

What is more impressive: That writer-director-actor Shane Carruth made arguably the most complicated time travel movie ever? Or that he did it for a paltry $7,000?

Primer made a big splash when it hit Sundance in 2004 (it ultimately one the festival’s Grand Jury Prize that year), and after you’ve seen it you’ll know why. I finally caught it last night on Netflix and then spent several hours reading synopsis, looking at illustrated plot diagrams and, this morning, watching an animated 20-minute youtube video that explains the film.

This is a challenging movie that gives its audience nothing by way of exposition. Carruth expects you to follow along, piecing things together by yourself and spend some time after the movie putting the picture together in your head. He deliberately withholds crucial plot points and leaves major questions unanswered, but everything you need  is there on screen.

Oh, what’s it about? Two friends inadvertently build a time machine. They try to be careful. They’re not careful enough. Things get complicated.

71% on Rotten Tomatoes.

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*Note: While sensitive to spoilers, some plot details from Seasons 1-3 of House of Cards follow*

Season 2 of ‘House of Cards’ started with a major character being thrown in front of a train. It ended with another major character being left for dead in a forest after being bludgeoned by a rock.

‘House of Cards’ often gets dinged for it’s unlikely plot developments, which sees a House Majority Whip ascend to the Oval Office in 26 episodes through a serious of calculated and occasionally deadly maneuvers. Frank Underwood, the series’ anti-heroic protagonist is effectively invincible, gunning down his adversaries like the video games he enjoys and piercing space and time to gloat about his victories to the viewing audience at home.

It’s implausible political porn, but at least in seasons 1 and 2 it was deliciously implausible political porn.

In season 3, the action moves to the White House, the seat of American government, and abruptly grinds to a halt. Gone are the locomotive homicides, gone are the parliamentary machinations, gone are the clandestine rendezvous, and in their place we have President Francis Underwood, standing at a white board, explaining the budgetary quandaries of entitlement reform.

Because what happens when a Machiavellian caricature achieves what he wants? What happens when there is no one left in Frank Underwood’s way? As it turns out, we just get a president trying to up his approval ratings and push a jobs package through Congress. It’s like The West Wing, without the fourth wall.

And so Frank Underwood weeps (in episode 2) because there are no more worlds to conquer.

Having now finished the entirety of season 3, I’m left slightly befuddled. The series now bears so little resemblance to its earlier self that I’m honestly not sure what to think. What I do know is that the decision to forego politics and focus on relationship was wrongheaded.

That status of Claire and Frank Underwood, the series’ Lord and Lady Macbeth, takes up the bulk of the going’s on, but elsewhere we watch Remy pine for Jackie, Doug pine for Rachel, and most of the remaining cast neglected or forgotten. Never before have the expansive halls of the West Wing felt so claustrophobic.

It’s a shame, because an unpopular and unelected president fighting for his shot at a party nomination would have made for an interesting exercise in the world that Beau Willimon built. I suppose it’s possible that season 4 could shift in that direction, with the campaign just now in full swing and trouble at home for the Underwood’s, but I find myself painfully, disappointingly ambivalent.

As it stands now, I find myself wishing that the final shot of season 2, with Frank staring triumphant into the camera and pounding his ring on the Resolute Desk in anticipation of the tasks ahead, had been ‘House of Cards’ last.

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