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Checking In on Netflix’s Original Movies: January 2022 Edition

Alyssa Milano in Brazen. Photo: Sergei Bachlakov/Netflix

With the end-of-year cutoff for awards consideration now in our rearview, Netflix is taking January to cool off and unload some under-the-radar titles that won’t require press junkets and For Your Consideration campaigns. The must-see selection presses some hot buttons with a carnal setup as French as can be, but this month’s lineup is its own miniature world tour, including a social-issue drama from Indonesia, a Polish gangster epic that plays like pickled Scorsese, and a finely wrought Spanish nightmare. All this, plus a special surprise for fans of Alyssa Milano and/or psychosexual intrigue! Beat back the post-holiday late-winter doldrums with one of the newest Netflix original films, appraised in full below:

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Dear Mother

Vive la France, the only country where the following premise could stand a chance of getting off the ground: The listless Jean-Louis (Laurent Lafitte, who also directed this adaptation of a play) is surprised to find that his heart has stopped and left him in a suspended state of half-death, the only cure for which turns out to be laying eyes on his mother’s pudenda. An Oedipal yukfest ensues as he tries to loophole himself out of this predicament by snapping a Polaroid of the privates in question, its cringe comedy pushed into the realm of genuinely discomforting taboo. Lafitte’s sense of humor has one foot in the sophomoric and one foot in the sophisticated (the film’s French title is L’Origine du Monde, as in Gustave Courbet’s 19th-century portrait of a faceless woman’s vulva, and opens with an interlude among the cosmos), a bracing combination utterly alien to the American cinematic comedy tradition. If for nothing else than the shock of novelty, it’s a worthy diversion.

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Four to Dinner

After a few cocktails, a dinner party’s worth of 30-somethings engage in a little thought experiment. To finally settle the dispute over whether soul mates actually exist, a married couple (Flavio Furno and Marta Gastini) pairs up their single friends in hypothetical scenarios, some of which see their love taking wing and some of which don’t. The idea is that the perfect match depends just as much on where we’re at in life as some inherent person-to-person compatibility — less Mister Right, more Mister Right Now — which seems broadly correct, even if it’s not all that revelatory. The point might be better made if director Alessio Maria Federici and writer Martino Coli didn’t drop it right on our heads, with an intro announcing “here’s the thesis of our film!” and an outro that echoes it with “and that’s the thesis of our film!” That unimaginative straightforward quality extends to the set-ups as well, to the extent that even the segments where everything lines up feel somewhat strained.

The Wasteland

We’re somewhere in the 1800s, and one family — tough-loving father Salvador (Roberto Alamo), tenderer mother Lucia (Inma Cuesta), and their puffball of a son, Diego (Asier Flores) — has put down stakes in the most sublimely eerie corner of rural Spain available. From the unsettling dolls made by Mommy to the minimalist scarecrows studding their farmland like executions at Golgotha, bad vibes abound, and threaten to swallow up fragile Diego when Dad goes off to find the family of the guy who just committed suicide on their front step. It’s another one of those deals where a family’s dysfunction transmutes itself into monster form, which in this portentous instance isn’t quite as thrilling as a monster without one foot in metaphorical abstraction. “Actually, it’s about trauma” has become something of a punch line in the world of horror as of late, and the privileging of subtext over the actual text here does a good job of explaining why.

Brazen

Deadly Illusions, the not-technically-a-Netflick licensed by the service last year in which Kristin Davis played a paperback mystery writer solving a real-life murder plot, reportedly did monster numbers; of course it was only a matter of time until the studio made their own in-house. Another actress known for her TV work around the turn of the millennium (this time it’s Alyssa Milano of Charmed fame) lands in a similar predicament, drawing on her instincts as a scribe of page-turners to suss out who stabbed her sister to death. This all belongs in the realm of the trashtastic, but director Monika Mitchell lacks the sense of irony required to find the funny in this overheated tangle of illicit secrets, leaving tedium in the vacant space. In this rather milquetoast take on a genre that thrives on the outré, we miss out on the kinky thrills that both embrace and rise above the disreputable. Though Mitchell’s plot revolves around the clandestine doings of a cam girl, there’s nothing here that feels forbidden.

Photocopier

A college girl (Shenina Syawalita Cinnamon) goes out, gets too wasted, and discovers the unremembered events of the evening in horror on her phone the morning after. It’s a commonplace occurrence, but in the censorious culture of Indonesia, an indelicate, inebriated selfie is all it takes to get booted from your school and family. Our gal Sur puts her feelings of violation to one side so she can play sleuth and figure out how she lost control, discovering some unsavory scheming from her classmates in the process. (Pretty much the same deal as Pippa Bianco’s Share, though the production timeline suggests that that’s coincidence rather than algorithmic jiggery-pokery behind the scenes.) The judgmental local context gives this film an added sense of stakes, and its frank addressing of sexual assault doubles as a critique of the nation’s status quo depicted here. If only the dialogue wasn’t so starkly functional, and more well-versed in the fumbling inarticulateness of young people, this could’ve been a plausible, valuable dissection of a social epidemic.

This Is Not a Comedy

The American indie circuit has given us plenty of sensitive, deadpan dramedies about stand-up comedians hiding their neuroses and arrested development behind a crying-clown façade, and this Mexican equivalent doesn’t bring much distinction to the act. Sad-sack funnyman Gabriel Nuncio (playing a fictionalized version of himself, in addition to co-directing and co-writing) faces a litany of mini-crises common to his type: He’s trying to sell a movie script that nobody considers marketable enough to produce, he’s striking up a thing with a surprisingly played-straight iteration of the manic pixie dream girl (Cassandra Ciangherotti), a friend wants him to donate his sperm. Those familiar with the Mexican comedy scene may get more out of its fly-on-the-wall infiltration of the clique — several noted comics pop up as themselves — but the touchy-feelier side of its midlife coming-of-age schtick is stale.

How I Fell in Love With a Gangster

It’s the grand conundrum of the gangster movie: Hungry young directors who grew up in thrall of their coolness want to make their own, but nothing’s un-cooler than rehashing the greatest hits of previous generations. That Maciej Kawulski’s addition to this crowded underworld comes to us from Poland seems promisingly unique, until it’s clear that he’s just manufacturing a knockoff of the brand-name stuff from the States. The true-life tale of Nikodem “Nikos” Skotarczak (Tomasz Wolosok), from penny-ante boyhood scams to the top of the criminal heap, could have been inscribed from that of Henry Hill or Frank Lucas or any number of the headstrong, ruthless crooks who came before them. The one-night stands with faceless women, the sharp injections of stylized violence, the rise-and-fall structure — it’s all a tune we know too well, even if it’s been re-scored by banging Eastern European club music.

Checking In on Netflix’s Original Movies: January 2022