Brief Thoughts: Late 2019 Netflix Round-up – Atlantics, Dolemite, Ferns, Klaus, Marriage, Popes & More!
While I have no connection to Netflix outside of being a subscriber, I can’t deny the wide array of diverse cinematic content they’ve put out during this awards season. For every 6 Underground, the studio seems to have also thrown plenty of money at various auteurs and new talent (as far as their prestige releases go). Yes, The Irishman was able to deliver on being all Scorsese wanted it to be, but Netflix put out several movies during the Fall and early Winter in 2019 that I wanted to make more reference to than the occasional podcast episode. The following is a series of brief thoughts covering these releases. Sure, I wish I had the time to devote to each of these films and construct full reviews, but I’m happy to say at least something about each of these features (presented in alphabetical order).
Set on the Atlantic coast of Senegal, Atlantics is the story of Ada, a woman stuck between a man she loves and another she’s betrothed to. The disappearance of the former, and her ambivalence to the latter, means she’s put to the test physically, but a supernatural factor begins to reveal itself as well. The mix of real-world social commentary with a fantastical concept, organically introduced into the film, allows Atlantics to work far better than it could in lesser hands. However, as a debut film for director Mati Dip, there’s plenty to consider in how the film is constructed, the memorable visuals it presents, and the emotion it brings out of the characters.
Between Two Ferns: The Movie: 3 ½ out of 5
After a decade’s worth of hilarious, cringe-inducing comedy shorts starring Zach Galifianakis, creator Scott Auckerman (of the great Comedy Bang Bang podcast), makes his feature-length directorial debut, extending Between Two Ferns to a full-on movie. Still, the premise is mostly the same, with fun material stitching together a series of awkward interviews between Galifianakis and a cavalcade of celebrities, including Keanu Reeves, Benedict Cumberbatch, Awkwafina, Brie Larson, David Letterman, Jon Hamm, Tiffany Haddish, and an especially game Matthew McConaughey. Typically, a film like this that also features Will Ferrell as a ridiculous version of himself could be hit or miss in trying to fit everything together. Somehow, Between Two Ferns defies the odds, with a consistent level of joke output that does plenty to impress, as much as it generates laughs.
Dolemite Is My Name: 4 out of 5
One of the year’s sweetest films happens to be based around the life of the outrageous Rudy Ray Moore, a performer who went from struggling artist to stand-up sensation and low-budget movie star. Eddie Murphy is dynamite in his portrayal of Moore, a mild-mannered and good-natured man who worked hard to ascend into a level of stardom he was happy with by developing a new persona who could entertain audiences all over, bringing all of his friends with him. There’s a genuine energy to what Dolemite Is My Name has to offer, and it comes from the way writers Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski (the duo of Ed Wood fame) tap into the overall positive vibe that came out of this “pull ourselves up by our bootstraps” and “lets put on a show” operation. The result is a film that allows Murphy the chance to shine brighter than he has in years while letting a robust supporting cast, including Wesley Snipes, Keegan-Michael Key, Craig Robinson, Tituss Burgess, and Da’Vine Joy Randolph all shine brightly as well, with plenty of laughs along the way. (Note, I actually did write a full review, but hey, this film is so heartfelt in delivering a good time for audiences that it was worth writing about it again.)
El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie: 3 ½ out of 5
Even writer/director Vince Gilligan has admitted there’s no real reason for El Camino to exist. However, as an epilogue to the acclaimed Breaking Bad series that wrapped up in 2013 (the terrific spin-off, Better Call Saul is still going), you could do a lot worse than a stylish revisit to the world of Albuquerque, where corruption and drug dealers seemingly run rampant. Not hurting is the presence of Aaron Paul, the heart of the original series, who is fully game to dig up all the emotions of Jesse Pinkman, who we now see on the run, attempting to find a way to truly escape his former life. The Breaking Bad writers always enjoyed finding ways to box their characters into a corner and then figuring a way out, which is what this feature film does best in its tensest moments. Between that and the return of the great Robert Forster for what is now his final film performance, it’s a pretty great way to watch something that wasn’t “needed.”
Klaus: 4 out of 5
This animated Christmas comedy from Spanish animator Sergio Pablos (in his directorial debut) was an honest surprise in how it offered up a story that not only fits for the holiday season, but provides a humorous amount of justification for it. Granted, there’s a cynical way to look at how Christmas turned into a means to celebrate this event in a more commercial way, but who’s to argue with a buddy movie involving Jason Schwartzman and J.K. Simmons? As it stands, the impressive visual design of this film allows for a unique look keeping an adventurous spirit alive, along with the comedy. Dabbling in some darker elements is a nice touch as well because kids can certainly handle it, let alone benefit from not having everything feel so squeaky clean.
The Laundromat: 2 out of 5
While Steven Soderbergh’s High Flying Bird remains one of my favorite films of the year, The Laundromat is a major disappointment. This is especially the case given the involvement of a terrific cast that includes Meryl Streep, Gary Oldman, Antonio Banderas, and Jeffrey Wright, along with screenwriter Scott Z. Burns (his film, The Report, is much better), and composer David Holmes. The film deals with the Panama papers scandal, and if you’re not sure what that is offhand, this film goes through great pains to explain everything it can in a loose style clearly trying to fit with a trend launched by The Big Short. Characters talk into camera, there’s a humorous bent to everything we see, and Streep dons brownface for a good portion of the runtime because that was apparently the correct choice for this film. I don’t pretend to know how accurate this film is in capturing the actual story, but I can see a mess of a movie from one of my favorite directors.
I Lost My Body: 4 out of 5
This spectacular and surreal French animated film finds a way to combine the macabre with a reflection on life. I Lost My Body is a truly out of body experience, as the prime narrative focuses on a severed hand that has escaped a lab and sets out on a journey to be rejoined with its body. This darkly humorous adventure is split up with flashbacks to the life of the young man the hand belongs to. Watching this boy, Naoufel, we learn of his upbringing, what he’s gone through, and the love he found in Gabrielle. All of this is completely compelling, as the narrative has a strength that allows for more consideration beyond the gruesome element involving a dismembered hand. That aspect is certainly interesting as well, but I Lost My Body does a terrific job of making it clear that the hand has a brain.
Marriage Story: 4 ½ out of 5
Noah Baumbach concludes the terrific decade he’s been having with possibly his best feature, or at least the one that feels like the most complete representation of the idea he had for a compelling story. Still operating in a realm evoking 70s/80s-era Woody Allen, Marriage Story also calls to mind Kramer vs. Kramer, as there’s a very rough depiction of a failed marriage-turned-divorce on display. Yet, the film is no doubt very funny, at times, in the way it goes through the details coming from separation and eventually legal proceedings. Basically, the film hits as hard as it gives way to let the audiences breathe, thanks to its sense of humor. Making the film all the more successful are the plethora of terrific characters Baumbach has written, with a series of great actors filling the shoes of these roles. Laura Dern, Ray Liotta, a wonderful Alan Alda, Julie Hagerty, and Merritt Wever all round out the supporting cast. However, it’s Scarlett Johansson, and more specifically Adam Driver, who fully embody the roles of Nicole and Charlie, two successful artists (she as an actress, and he as a theater director), with a child, and a lot of drama to share between them. Both are fantastic, and I have little doubt Driver won’t go the distance in winning many awards.
The Two Popes: 4 out of 5
When I heard Fernando Meirelles, the director of City of God and The Constant Gardener, two of my favorite films, was directing a movie about two popes; it sounded like a great bargain. I get one pope, and then screenwriter Anthony McCarten decided to throw another in for free! I kid, but at the same time, this really is a film about Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, the eventual Pope Francis (played excellently by Jonathan Pryce as an older man, with Juan Minujin as the younger Argentinian). We see a lot of his life in Argentina, during a time of military dictatorship, and how that affected his status as a Jesuit priest. The modern-day story goes over his ascension into becoming the Pope, thanks to the relationship he formed with Pope Benedict XVI. Anthony Hopkins brings plenty of wry energy to this role. When the film isn’t going over the dramatic bits of history, it has a lot of fun blending various pieces of source material with dramatizations of their friendship, and an especially impressive recreation of the Sistine Chapel. It’s more involved than ”My Dinner with Pope Francis,” as it works as an insightful, funny, and interesting look at a process and people I personally knew next to nothing about.