Five years ago, I undertook a foolhardy mission somewhere between the quixotic and the Sisyphean: to maintain a comprehensive list assessing and ranking every single new Netflix original film, excepting only the documentaries and the shorts for the sake of sanity. My mental fortitude would nevertheless unravel over the coming years as the studio beefed up its production and acquisitions departments, leading to a breakneck rate of a dozen premieres in a slow month. I saw it all, from the unsung gems of Chinese realist drama to the accursed knockoffs-of-knockoffs baiting the lowest common denominator of viewer. And even as the article’s page grew past 500 entries to an untenable length, even as I came to fear the thud and hum of the big red N logo like one of Pavlov’s dogs, I felt there was a real worthiness to this mad labor of love. A lot of these releases would come and go with near-zero coverage, if not for this ongoing assignment; someone needed to champion the good stuff and take the bad to task. As a whole, the behemoth of a list forms a bird’s-eye history of a disruptive-industry newcomer’s expansion and evolution into one of the business’s most dominant forces.
So while the original list has been laid to rest, the great work continues. We intend to stay on the Netflix beat in a less unwieldy capacity, compiling a monthly digest of the latest titles with accompanying capsule reviews. The big-budget awards contenders and the slapstick comedies imported from Basque Country, the Indian issue pictures and the Hollywood action spectacles, the next Scorsese epic and the output of McG — all will have their fair day in court. Along the way, regular readers may even develop the algorithmic sixth sense I’ve gained over the past half-decade and start to get an inkling of how and why Netflix does what it does.
Though things at Netflix have cooled off somewhat as it has finished unloading all of its awards contenders before the Academy cutoff at the end of February, this month still boasts an eclectic spread of fresh offerings. A no-b.s. beat-’em-up thriller in from France, a one-of-a-kind animated marvel imported from India, the latest directorial effort from the former Leslie Knope, and Jennifer Garner’s cinematic guide to perfectly-imperfect parenting all fill out the docket, so read on for the full lowdown on your next streaming obsession.
The Netflix library has no shortage of sturdy middlebrow Euro-action, but Julien Leclercq’s take on a real-life counterterrorism force in France winnows away the extraneous fat until all that’s left is sinew and bone. With only 80 fleet minutes on the clock, we have time for little more than Olga Kurylenko (splitting the difference between Charlize Theron in Atomic Blonde and Claire Danes in Homeland) beating up bad guys like crazy. The plot doesn’t do much more than guide her from one face-off to the next as she hunts her sister’s rapist through the ranks of a Russian organized-crime operation, but those set pieces have a remorseless crunch to them, closer to the low-budget savagery of a latter Universal Soldier installment than the tight choreography of clear influence John Wick. She trades gracefulness for brute force, and visually it’s an even exchange.
In a digital equivalent to the groundbreaking oil-painting-in-motion Loving Vincent, thousands of computerized drawings comprise the novel animation technique of Gitanjali Rao’s ambitious social fantasy. In hazy strokes apt for the film’s constant blending of reality and daydream, she envisions a bustling Mumbai wherein a Hindu flower salesgirl (voice of Cyli Khare) falls in love with a Muslim refugee from Kashmir (Amit Deondi), their differences charging their affaire de coeur with the melodramatic flair of the Bollywood romances to which the film pays homage. In practice, that classical bent can sometimes come off as heavy-handedness, as in the subplot that sees our gal paying bills by dancing in the employ of a shark-toothed pimp character. But those attuned to the soaring highs and tear-soaked lows of old-school Indian cinema will luxuriate in the opulently rendered passion.
The Mitchells vs. the Machines
With the hyperactively playful spirit of The LEGO Movie (from producers Phil Lord and Chris Miller) and the pop-art savvy of Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (from studio Sony Pictures Animation), this plugged-in adventure places itself among the finest mainstream animation in recent years. Gravity Falls veteran and first-time feature director Mike Rianda reimagines his own family as a dysfunctional clan of kooks led by an outdoorsy dad (voice of Danny McBride) resentful of how much time his wife (voice of Maya Rudolph) and kids (voices of Abbi Jacobson and Rianda) spend glued to their screens. But when smart devices get a little too smart and stage a hostile world takeover, he and his YouTuber daughter Katie come to appreciate the way the other sees their brightly colored, frenetically edited world. Internet-hued humor involving cross-eyed pugs and gigantic demonic Furbies can cater to the whole family without dumbing itself down.
A sobering rejoinder to the scores of feel-good dramas about following your dreams wherever they might lead, Chaitanya Tamhane’s intrepidly introspective character portrait dares to ask when we need to stop pursuing a greatness we have no hope of attaining. Green young sitar player Sharad (Aditya Modak) can think of nothing but music, pledging his entire self to study and practice until he reaches the perfection that continues to elude him through the film’s decades-spanning timeline. As his mentor (Arun Dravid) crumbles into frailty, Sharad must accept the gap between his abilities and the virtuosic skill on which he’s modeled his adult life, which he’s now watching vanish before his eyes. Tamhane deepens the old canard about how work isn’t everything, her corollary suggestion being that what we might perceive as a calling higher than any mere job can still be a trap we set for ourselves.
Once each year, Jennifer Garner treats her real-life kids to a daylong grace period during which the parents let their youngsters call the shots, leading to all manner of family-friendly high jinks. She produces and stars alongside Edgar Ramírez in this wacky movie treatment of the festivities, somewhat domesticated by placing its focus on the frustrations and insecurities of motherhood. Though the Disney Channel tone suggests a grade-school-age audience, the actual children get little to do and less to be, leaving Garner and Ramírez to carry the arc of the film as they get back in touch with the carefree sides that had been retired by responsibility. This odd dissonance notwithstanding, it’s a serviceable way to occupy an hour and a half for quarantine-bound little ones; though an ice-cream binge may leave Daddy Ramírez incapacitated, the film itself isn’t overly sugary.
Amy Poehler improves upon her dull directorial debut, Wine Country, with this squeaky-clean riot-grrrl comedy, but not by much. She’s clearly coming from a good place in her adaptation of Jennifer Mathieu’s paperback about one girl (Hadley Robinson) who had enough of her high school’s toxically male culture and pushed back by starting a Gen-X-styled zine. But her brand of feminism is more spunky than punky, its you-go-girl demonstrations lacking in anything like the ideological piss and vinegar that defined the movement imitated here. More worrisome still, she steps in some problematics while going out of her way to avoid others; the appearance of a trans character ticks its box without allowing her a developed personhood, and a sudden and unusually public rape confession is used to tie up the messy plot in a bow.
An inability to impregnate one’s wife doesn’t have to trigger a crisis of masculinity in an aging husband — it’s a medical thing, pure and simple — and yet in the movies, it always does. For graying narco kingpin Don Oscar (Christian Tappan), the reproductive trouble hammers the final nail into his self-confidence and fiefdom with it, as rival gangsters and authorities close in while his alternately untrustworthy and incompetent underlings flail around him. This Guy Ritchie–ish black comedy melds the natural humor of boneheaded tough guys with a dash of the elegiac, though we aren’t made to miss Don Oscar badly enough to weigh down the twisted buoyancy. He’s on the way out, and director Carlos Moreno knows that we have to take pleasure in watching him go.
Coven of Sisters
This Spanish-language horror fable turns back the calendar on Robert Eggers’s The Witch two decades to the 1610s and moves everything to Basque Country, where repressed religious officials were also hard at work persecuting the women they feared and misunderstood. Writer-director Pablo Agüero reiterates the key points about stifling patriarchal rule and the dangerous potential of pent-up feminine power, but he seems strangely preoccupied with the literalist question of whether the accused young women really were witches or not. A handful of girls hatch a scheme to hoist the tormentors by their own lecherous petards, and its commentary on how the men in authority channeled their denied urges into external superstition could’ve sustained the film on its own. But Agüero’s choice to clarify a final note of ambiguity weakens the overall dramatic impact, bringing a story with a hint of mystique crashing back down to Earth.
Mehmet may not be doing so well, but he wants to do good. Turkey’s former No. 1 male model Çağatay Ulusoy portrays our trash-picking hero as a de facto father figure to the many street children in his run-down neighborhood of Istanbul, destitute and sick yet rich in magnanimous spirit. In Can Ulkay’s modest human drama, he takes in the hopeless Ali (Emir Ali Doğrul), an abuse survivor with as little to his name as his new caretaker. This entry in the sizable “Guy Lets Wayward Kid Under His Wing” section of the Netflix library sets itself apart by refraining from putting up walls just to take them down again. This formula generally casts the older fellow as a withdrawn brick wall taught empathy by their charge, but Mehmet isn’t repressed enough to require this tedious evolution. If not for the why-bother twist torpedoing the conclusion, it would be one of the service’s better character studies.
At the wheel of a stolen hot-pink Bad Bitch-mobile with Lil Rel Howery riding shotgun, Eric Andre tears ass across America (often literally — his hindquarters get a lot of play) in this fearless prankumentary. He and Howery play a couple of Joe Schmoes driving from Miami to New York with the vehicle’s fuming owner (Tiffany Haddish) busted out of jail and close behind, but the wispy plot is only there to provide a fame for the stunts bridging the gap between the puerile and the inspired. The unsuspecting folks caught on camera are the real stars, their candid, fascinated, nosy reactions to the projectile vomiting and gorilla fornication the source of the laughs. Fans of Andre’s anarchic Adult Swim talk show may find the content mild in comparison, but for everyone else, it’s a welcoming point of entry to his batty body of work.
Things Heard and Seen
Dad (James Norton, rakish and loathsome) packs the family up for a move from the city out the country, where unrestful phantoms from a past incident most foul turn their dream home into a nightmare. Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini’s paperback horror-thriller adaptation sure sounds like another brick in the haunted-house wall, except that the ghostly squatters seem to be trying to tell our gal Catherine (Amanda Seyfried) something, rather than simply kill her. While this rehashing of old genre formula knows enough to distinguish itself with a couple zags where its forebears have zigged, the writer-directors fail to meet the text halfway, staging each scene and exchange of dialogue for maximum blandness. They privilege suspense over all else, even as the story at hand starts to contend with more advanced ideas and textures, chief among them that death may not be the real thing we have to be afraid of.