Friday, August 1, 2014

Netflix's Mixed Bill of Fare

Netflix, a bargain Internet venue featuring a cornucopia of movies and TV series for a minimal monthly charge, is a craps shoot, a spin of the roulette wheel, what winning or losing card emerges from the banker's baccarat shoe.

One thing you can depend on before a movie unreels, European or American, is a series of initial credits: Widget Cinema….in association with Piglet Productions….A Floyd Floozy Film….in cooperation with the Film Board of Patagonia….A Wholesome Fare Film…..a Cayman Island Entertainment Production….together with Melody Lane LLC… partnership with Howling Banshees Studios….Handcrafted Cinema Company….and on and on, each with its own animated graphics. One almost falls asleep waiting for the cast and directorial credits. For a person who grew up with the MGM lion, the Columbia lady, Paramount's Mount Everest, and even the British Rank/Ealing Studios muscle man hitting a giant gong, and other signature production credits, the parade of entities responsible for most of the movies offered by Netflix is disconcerting. But, apparently that's "progress."

After a movie has been made, do these entities vanish like puffballs, or go airborne like dandelion seeds, or roll out of sight like tumbleweeds? Are they intertwined tax dodges, or cinematic pyramid schemes? I have yet to see a single "associated with" name reappear in the credits of any of the independent productions. Major producers, such as TriStar with its white Pegasus, limit such credits to one or two before introducing the major producer. And the older MGM and RKO credits, for example, put the "associated" entities in parenthetical positions somewhere around the major studio's name. One never really notices them.

That complaint being lodged, here are some appraisals of a handful of Netflix's offerings.

Barbara Sukowa plays a credible Hannah Arendt, released in 2012, as the German-Jewish author of The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951) and Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil ( 1963). This "docudrama" of her conflict with other Jews about the true nature of the men behind the Holocaust highlights her struggles as she attends Adolf Eichmann's trial. She was not prepared for the bitter opposition to her covering the trial for The New Yorker, and was ostracized by many of her best friends. This is definitely worth watching qua docudrama, with great chunks of Arendt's life left out or merely shown in passing, such as her affair with Martin Heidegger, the Nazi intellectual.

Also from 2012 is No God, No Master, a deceptive title because it has little or nothing to do with God or masters. The title is nowhere explained in the film. The phrase was an early anarchist slogan coined by French anarchist Auguste Blanqui in 1880. However, the film is just a very well done "docudrama" of the early years of the FBI's first director (then known as the Bureau of Investigation), William Flynn, ably portrayed by David Strathairn, and is set chiefly in 1919.  It chronicles the detective work of Flynn before he was appointed B.O.I. director. When he stepped down after two years at the post, he was succeeded by J. Edgar Hoover. The story begins with his trying to determine who is responsible for a series of package bombs left on the doorsteps of prominent Boston men or mailed to them.

The film, a little past halfway through it, then blends into the story of Sacco and Vanzetti, the Italian anarchists convicted of murdering a guard during a heist (not true to the actual event, as portrayed in the film), and later executed, and Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer/J. Edgar Hoover's raids that purportedly netted some 10,000 new immigrants to be deported. Flynn abruptly (and incredibly) becomes a champion of the immigrants and an enemy of Palmer.

A Spanish entry (actually made and set in Spain), The Last Days, from 2013, is a low-key end-of-the-world film. It follows the search of a Barcelona computer geek, Marc, for his pregnant girlfriend, Julia. A mysterious but unnamed virus has caused everyone everywhere to suffer from agoraphobia, or a fear of being outdoors or in open spaces. Civilization is at an end. I don’t know how good and bad acting are measured in Spain, but there was too much intense staring that conveyed nothing and too many emotional Latin outbursts of anger to suit my tastes for drama.

The purpose of the film is revealed at the end: It's an environmentalist attack on Western technology and "consumerism." Marc finds his girlfriend; they camp out in an abandoned clinic. Time passes. They have a boy. He grows into a teenager. When he goes off with a gang of other kids on an unknown quest, Marc and Julia, looking as young as ever and none the worse for wear, wave goodbye, as the group wends its way through a part of Barcelona whose buildings are smothered with more vines than it took Harvard to grow in one and a half centuries. Ah, the good life! How idyllic! Living on collected rainwater and on an indoor vegetable garden. You see, Marc and Julia still can't go outside without going wobbly and woozy. Their ears would bleed, they would lose consciousness, and would die.

I learned something about Scandinavian folklore in Thale, released in 2012. I'm not sure how I'd classify this entry, fantasy or horror. A pair of house cleaners (Norwegian; they're introduced scrubbing blood from a floor in a private home; why, remained unexplained) discover a basement that turns out to have been the research sanctum of a fellow who had captured a hulder, or a woman with a cow's tail.

What is most remarkable about the film is that the two lead characters, the cleaners, played by Jon Sigve Skard and Erlend Nervold, are the sorriest excuses for leading men I have ever seen. Skard doesn't do much but look expressionless and chew gum in between brief responses to his partner, while Nervold never loses his look of trepidation and astonishment. The hulder, Thale, who suddenly emerges from a trough, is played by the exquisite Silje Reinåmo, and is mysterious enough to make one wonder what she'll do to or with the two intruders. Then some armed government men show up wanting to take over the hulder. Thale escapes, killing all the government men, and cures Skard of cancer. Go figure. She retreats to the Norwegian woods to try to join her wild sister hulders, who run around naked and are dangerous. She can't rejoin them, because her captor had surgically and painfully removed her tail. She is an outcast.

I watched all five seasons (2007-2011) of the British science fiction series, Primeval on Netflix. Science fiction is a genre I'm no longer keen to spend time on anymore because it's usually PC balderdash about how man destroys the earth or man being innately evil or flawed. Primeval is about a crackerjack team that deals with "anomalies," or rifts in time that let loose dinosaurs, mammoths, beetles, and other nasty predators and vermin on the present. The team's job is to intercept the monsters and send them back where they came from. They appear anywhere. The cast is good, much of the plotting is tight, and it was a pleasure to discover actor Ben Miller, who plays the nattily dressed and fastidious director of ARC, or the Anomaly Research Center, and the team's boss. He must have been an understudy for John Cleese's bungling hotelier Basil Fawlty of the comedy Fawlty Towers. His ironic asides are well-timed and spot-on. Another pleasant discovery was Hannah Spearritt, a team member and a nimble sprite it's easy to develop a crush on.

The CGI-created monsters are far above the usual fare, but, as I've remarked in earlier commentaries, CGI does not a story make. What surprised me was the main thread: the motive of one of the characters, a villainous scientist played by Juliet Aubrey, who it's revealed in the end plans to go back far in time to the Rift Valley in East Africa in order to slaughter the first hominids, so that mankind does not evolve "to pollute the planet and despoil the earth and cause global warming." It's a confession one won’t hear anywhere else, not even in real life.

She does go back, and poisons one tribe of ape men, but is done in before she can kill again by a raptor that followed her through an anomaly. Had she succeeded in her plan, history would have changed and she would have vanished along with everyone who ever existed. Earth would have been pristinely absent of the human race. Asked about this by another character trapped in the Pleistocene period, she answers that it would be worth the price if it eliminated man.

I don’t know of another series (or movie) in which an environmentalist is a murderous villain. Virtually all such movies and series offered by Netflix (and in the culture in general) feature a "maverick," unshaven environmentalism-friendly "hero" who saves the day (and has marital problems). Or it's an embittered female geologist or the like who saves the day (and has boyfriend problems).

Yes, I have watched some of those other science fiction movies or series, but stopped the moment the "hero" or "heroine" opened his mouth about man's alleged destructiveness, foolishness and recklessness. The "science" in these atrocities is truly fictional, as much as is Al Gore's or the EPA's. While the technical qualities of these films vary from low-budget, laughable awfulness to big-budget extravagance, the message is always the same. Man is guilty for his very existence.

On the brighter side, a younger David Strathairn appears as the protagonist in 1998's Evidence of Blood, Jackson Kinley, a Noble Prize winning author of true crime books. Informed that his best friend from their school days, the sheriff of a small Georgia town, has died and left him everything, he returns and begins an investigation into the murder of a young woman 40 years ago, following some cryptic clues in his late friend's home and elsewhere.  The clues indicate that the wrong man was found guilty of the murder (a verdict the man did not protest) and subsequently executed. He meets resistance from the former prosecutor and the man's defense attorney, and also from the town's retired chief of police, who was a rookie cop at the time.  He also becomes involved with the beguiling daughter of the executed man, Dora Overton, played by Mary McDonnell, who simply wants the truth. In the end, Kinley returns to the scene of the alleged crime, and discovers that he was a witness to it. The film plods along at a leisurely pace, but the story deserves patience and is rewarding in the end.

What is pure dessert among Netflix's offerings is Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries, a 2012-2014 Australian TV series set in Melbourne in the 1920's, starring Essie Davis as Phryne Fisher, a British heiress who resettles in Australia and decides to become an investigator of murders. Her semi-nemesis is John Robinson, a police detective, whom she helps solve crimes and who does not approve of her libertine, flapper ways. As the ice melts between them they eventually become unofficial partners in their work. Detective Robinson resists becoming enamored with Phryne Fisher (he represses, in the beginning, an admiration for her unorthodoxy and ingenuity, among her other assets) and implicitly surrenders to her irresistible charms, so the possibility of a third season indicates a romantic liaison. The series is based on the popular novels of Kerry Greenwood. I have not read any of them (there are, to date, twenty-one of them), but plan to order a few to see if they match the quality and spirit of the TV series.

Evidence of Blood is worth re-watching if only to observe the accumulation of clues that do not lead to the expected denouement, while all the episodes of Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries are worth watching over and over again, if only to escape our own time.

In one convenient venue, Netflix offers a broad perspective on the state of Western culture, of its esthetics, of its arts, and of its past and future.

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