Netflix is finishing the year strong and rolling out the big guns, judging by the stronger-than-average offerings added to the library this November. The must-sees include a Western-blaxploitation pastiche with a rowdy revisionist bent and a harrowing yet captivating look at a new form of slave labor festering on the streets and in junkyards of São Paolo. But that still leaves some highly respectable titles in the mix, such as Rebecca Hall’s well-reviewed directorial debut as well as your next true-crime obsession by way of Italy. Not to mention Kelsey Grammer as Father Christmas (not that Father Christmas) and, uh, Red Notice. Start planning the viewing for your family’s upcoming get-togethers with a digest of this month’s Netflix Original films.
The Harder They Fall
The compact but uniformly kick-ass canon of Black Westerns gains a rootin’-tootin’ new entry courtesy of Jeymes Samuel in his feature debut, as he remixes the history of real-life figures like Nat Love, Rufus Buck, Stagecoach Mary, and Cherokee Bill into a mash-up of African American heroism and villainy on the frontier. The plot is a boilerplate revenge saga, with Love (Jonathan Majors, a true movie star) hunting the hide of the varmint Buck (Idris Elba), who killed his ma and pa, but the exhilaration is all in Samuel’s neo-exploitation execution. Bloody squib packs have not been put to such magnificent use in some time, part of an overall aesthetic of merciless, fabulous violence in keeping with the ’70s revisionist vibe cultivated here. Chockablock with flashy performances (Zazie Beetz and Regina King are the standouts), dazzling costumes, and Old West sets recalling the greats of the genre, it’s also a treatise on race that refrains from browbeating us with its own import.
Like so many young men from the rural outskirts of Brazil, 18-year-old Mateus (Christian Malheiros) has no choice but to head to São Paolo in search of work to support his strapped family. He doesn’t realize that the bus shuttling him and the other boys to the scrapyard where they’ll be stripping copper is part of a massive economic trap, this promising job in actuality a form of modernized slavery made possible through threats and debt-mongering. Stern taskmaster Luca (Rodrigo Santoro) forces the boys into a cruel system exposing the howling desperation of poverty in this corner of the world, though he’s not exempt from it either; director Alexandre Moratto’s wisest move is to portray him as a beleaguered middle manager of human-rights violations, serving his own masters. Everyone’s locked in to a dehumanizing capitalistic machine in this well-measured, bleak work of realism in line with City of God (directed by Fernando Meirelles, a producer on this film).
In her first outing as director, Rebecca Hall makes a lot of shrewd judgement calls while adapting Nella Larsen’s 1929 novel. There’s the sumptuous black-and-white photography, part metaphor in a movie about racial code-switching (the contrast makes it deliberately difficult to discern skin tone) and part beauty unto itself. She has corralled a fantastic cast, including Tessa Thompson with her best mid-Atlantic accent and the effervescent Ruth Negga as her white-passing friend living a lie in her marriage to a racist husband (Alexander Skarsgård), with Andre Holland and Bill Camp as the other men in their orbit. But in the drama that takes shape between Thompson and Negga as the former realizes that the latter’s life of ethically compromised leisure is untenable, Hall’s insights are broad. Albeit elegantly, she spends the film driving home the core concept that denying one’s own heritage in order to fit in will ultimately leave you nowhere and with nothing, long past the point of our grasping it.
Father Christmas Is Back
Let’s be clear — the patriarch played by Kelsey Grammer in this rock-hard fruitcake of a Yuletide family comedy is merely a father Christmas and not the Father Christmas, his surname less Santa Claus than run-of-the-mill deadbeat dad. He’s returned to the palatial Christmas estate at Britain’s Dunnock Manor for the holidays with his bubbleheaded American girlfriend (April Bowlby) in tow, much to the chagrin of his daughters, in particular the tightly wound Caroline (Nathalie Cox) as she tries to engineer the perfect December 25 she never had. (Not a good sign that the funniest joke among the pratfalls and cartoony sound effects is Grammer’s mid-Atlantic baritone effectively making him an honorary Englishman.) The constant arguments breaking out gradually give way to the recognition that we must cherish our relatives even when they drive us batty, a regifted insight that the film doesn’t bother wrapping up in pleasing paper.
Though this Italian true-crime investigation opens just like an episode of Law and Order: SVU, as a civilian having some innocent fun in the park happens upon the mangled corpse of a minor, director Marco Tullio Giordana resists the urge to bask in the sordid nature of the material. Murdered teen Yara Gambirasio really lived, and the film respects that by spending as much time on the emotional fallout of this shocking crime as the particulars of cold-case sleuthing. In the killer-hunting genre, this has the most in common with Memories of Murder in its awareness of just how unprepared the country and its law enforcement were to contend with the depths of evil at work. The solemn, enthralling plot is related across a brisk hour and a half yet never shortchanges the protracted tedium that goes into policing, a deft negotiation between accuracy and expedient narrative presentation.
Even if we’re willing to get ourselves over the hump of this film’s noxious premise — Nina Dobrev flies cross-country to meet her beefcake Tinder match, who turns out to be a catfishing Jimmy O. Yang, but they fall in love anyway — there’s not enough comedy on the other side to make giving it a pass worth it. One would hope that there would at least be romantic chemistry to fall back on, but the intentionally mismatched leads don’t share the rapport that’s supposed to overcome their severe disparity in looks. (They bond over the played-out debate about Die Hard’s legitimacy as a Christmas movie.) Dobrev’s character gets put through a ringer of embarrassing experiences, starting with this perfectly good-looking woman’s inexplicable desperation to meet a man and climaxing with her mutated facial prosthetics after she has an allergic reaction to a kiwi. With no character deserving of investment, there’s precious little goodwill toward men to be had here.
It takes a script of potent, refined badness to make such a militantly blah vehicle for three A-listers whose respective fames are predicated on being compulsively watchable, and yet, somehow, Rawson Marshall Thurber did it. Each of the big names in this quarter-baked heist picture comes off looking like the worst version of themselves: The Rock seems as blandly palatable as the politician we fear he may someday become, Gal Gadot may very well be a life-size action figure, and Ryan Reynolds hits the deepest nadir as a brutal unfunniness turns his smart-aleck shtick into pure, insufferable smarm. They zip around stealing fancy eggs and double-crossing one another, though none of that really matters. Between the shameless sequel setup in the final moments and the promptly announced report from Netflix that eleventy zillion people watched this in its first weekend, it’s all just laying track for itself to continue doing and being nothing.