September 14, 2016


Looking for something truly entertaining and engaging on Netflix? Here are a few hidden and not-so-hidden gems. (I will continuing adding "finds" to the bottom of this post periodically.) See also my "Micro-Reviews" (includes recommended & non-recommended fare):

DOCTOR FOSTER -- This sobering BBC mini-series has adultery as its main plot. Dr. Foster is the cheated-on wife and MD. The maelstrom of emotions and reactions ring truer than true. The seriousness of the marriage bond stands in stark contrast to cavalier excuses and "arrangements." Without God or religion ever being mentioned, the innate sacredness of marriage (as well as the utter expectation and demand of fidelity) speaks for itself. (The 2nd Season isn't supposed to be that great. Really grabbing at straws. Should've ended with 1st Season.)

LOCKED IN (2010) -- This little American indie film revolving around a car accident has a big twist ending. It's also about adultery, with the best argument for taking personal responsibility I may have ever witnessed in a film. A few portions of the film's execution are a bit under par, but when it's right on, it's right on--and the cumulative, overall effect is winning.

THE DRIVER -- (British mini-series) A taxi driver--whose marriage is faltering--takes on some extra work for extra money, but the men are gangsters and he finds himself in deep.

WISH YOU WERE HERE -- Once again, the theme in this Australian film is adultery, but the surrounding tragedy is just as big: a tragic death in a group of friends. Everyone is in pain, everyone is suffering, and rather than abandoning each other, they are trying to work it out. We need more films that show us possibilities of conflict resolution--without easy answers or deus ex machina solutions. The ever-excellent Joel Edgerton stars.

RECTIFY -- This series, set in the American "Christ-haunted" South, is about a young man convicted of murder who spends a good portion of his life in prison, and not just prison: solitary confinement. He is now middle-aged and has been released due to his sister's tireless efforts to exonerate him. But solitary confinement has broken him in different ways, and he knows it. His return to his extended family (we follow quite a few characters) is a mixed blessing for him and for them. The question still remains: Is he guilty? But the whodunnit suspense takes a backseat to the complicated family dynamics. "Rectify" is a study in human dignity. We are all connected. Each person--still deeply marked by the incident of so many years ago and its fallout--strives to  respect the dignity of the others, but sometimes, that's an almost impossible feat.

THE FROZEN  -- Not to be confused with the wretched, ubiquitous "FROZEN," this little pro-life horror movie takes place in the aftermath of a snowmobile accident in an isolated wilderness. The only two characters are a couple whose romantic relationship is in question. The days come and go with the same mounting terror of walking in circles in the snow and never leaving the camp. And what about those noises? And that shadowy figure? The writer-director of this film returned to his Catholic Faith and went on to direct "Full of Grace," the film on the last days of the Blessed Virgin Mary on earth.

GEORGE GENTLY -- (episodes) Have a penchant for good British detective  stories? George Gently is an old school boxer, old school cop and old school gentleman all rolled into one. He's paired with a cocky young mop-top officer who could pass for the sixth Beatle (it's the 1960's). Humanity and graciousness never go out of style.

PSYCH -- (series) Simply put, I would make my kids watch this show. Two childhood friends: Sean and "Gus" (one white, one black) now solve crimes together. One pretends to be psychic, but it's really his keen powers of observation working overtime (powers drilled into him by his cop father). The show always starts with the boys as kids, with Sean usually learning a lesson from his Dad that he then applies to a present-day crime. His relationship with his father can be antagonistic at times, but it's clear they really love each other deeply. Sean and Gus'  rapid-fire banter and escapades are consistently hilarious, and they've created their own in-show tropes. The conceit is that these two have never grown up (especially Sean) and will be friends for life through thick and thin. They have their own code of honor and chivalry. The show is sweet, charming, laugh-out-loud funny, wholesome and upbeat, and displays a genuine sense of humor that shines like the sun in a too often out-of-ideas, tired, negative, depraved Hollywood.

PORTLANDIA -- (series) The rubber-faced Fred Armisen from Saturday Night Live and Carrie Brownstein, frontwoman from the girrrl band Sleater-Kinney, team up for sketch comedy set in Portland, Oregon, as a send up of that quirky city. There are always fresh new skits, but characters are constantly reprised and there are running themes and stories as well (e.g., the mayor of Portland and the side-splitting feminist bookstore). The deadpan humor is always self-deprecating and never vicious. Once in a great while there's something risque, but not terribly explicit. Fred and Carrie keep it classy. "Portlandia" could potentially be for pre-teens/teens also. After Season 5-ish, it gets a little bit more sexually themed. Amorally so.

GONE -- Amanda Seyfried stars in this tense thriller about a young woman who was abducted and escaped her abducter, but no one believers her. Now her sister is missing and she's convinced her stalker has returned. 

THE GOOD SON -- Elijah Wood and Macauley Caulkin are cousins. But one of them is a "bad seed." Psychopathy can start young....

THE CODE -- (Australian) Two young adult brothers--one an investigative reporter trying to solve a case, one on the autism spectrum trying to live an independent life--go through thick and thin together. The beautiful, brotherly devotion is palpable.

FATHER BROWN -- (British, episodes) Based on G. K. Chesterton's written series, the worldy-wise, gentle and kind Fr. Brown has one goal: to save people. Ultimately save them. He always tells them at the critical point some variation of: "Confess!" "It's not too late!" "You can save yourself!" "There is hope and redemption for you!" "I only care about your soul!"

HAPPY VALLEY -- (British mini-series) A lady cop is one tough grandmother. She's raising her deceased daughter's son whose Dad is her archenemy (she blames him for her daughter's death) and definitely one bad cookie.

GLITCH -- (Australian mini-series) 6 people return from the dead--but they're not zombies, they're in perfect health. A fascinating look at life, death, mortality. Catholic overtones. But it's not what you think, not facile, not about a second chance or making things right. Or is it? Season 2 is even better than Season 1. Questions about the value of human beings are subtly raised and beautifully answered. 5 stars.

BLACK MIRROR -- This brilliant, creative and terribly imaginative British set of self-contained episodes play out like Ray Bradbury short stories--if they were more like cautionary tales. They're set in a uber-wired-and-tech-connected-not-too-distant-future that doesn't really look like sci fi. It looks like us. Us on steroids. Mostly dealing with SOCIAL MEDIA. Some episodes are not for the faint-hearted and are pretty intense. And prescient. And very, very, very dark.
NOSEDIVE--social status is strictly determined by how many "likes" everyone gets on social media. Every single encounter with another person in real life must be immediately rated. Your continually fluctuating rating will determine what kind of promotion you will get work, what kind of rental car you will get, etc. "Niceness" is highly sought.
PLAY TEST--A nice enough slacker-dude needs the cash being a video game tester will provide. But this is an augmented reality game. About your deepest fears. It involves a "mild, reversible" medical procedure.
SHUT UP AND DANCE--The most disturbing and yet realistic of the three episodes I've seen ("sextortion" is a real thing: you are recorded via your webcam--did you know your light need not go on for someone to record you?). Random people have been video-ed doing sexual acts or seeking unfaithful sexual encounters online. "They" now control each person's life through blackmail. The deep, deep shame (and other consequences) of having their contacts (this is the actually the worst) and cyberspace (strangers) see and know what they have done is too much to even bear thinking about. The blackmailed are slaves. [This is truly fascinating from a Theology of the Body POV. Would it be the end of the world to be exposed? Only one of the acts is not a sexual act but a racist one. But anyone watching this episode has to ask: Wow. What if my hidden acts were revealed? Would I bow to pressure to hide them? It made me think: Will the Last Judgment be like this? Or will we feel OK with "being known" because it is all in God's light and God is mercy?

"There is nothing concealed that will not be disclosed, or hidden that will not be made known. What you have spoken in the dark will be heard in the daylight, and what you have whispered in the inner rooms will be proclaimed from the housetops.…" Luke 12:2, Matthew 10: 26, Mark 4:22

THE GOOD NEIGHBOR -- Two callous young men pull an elaborate and invasive stunt on their grouchy old neighbor. Things are not always what they seem even with 24-hour surveillance. Also, James Caan.

BACKCOUNTRY -- This"kind-of" horror movie is more a suspense-thriller with a distinctly Canadian flavour. There's one super-gorey sequence that is discreetly realistic (with a bear that's way more true-to-life than the bear in "The Revenant")--AND artfully filmed--not gratuitously filmed. A sweet, genuine and honest love story. A+++++  Theology-of-the-Body-approved.

This engrossing documentary about the retirement of prima ballerina Wendy Whelan from the New York City Ballet at 47 is a work of art in itself. (I started watching her part way through the doc thinking she was in her late 20's.) Yikes! Then she mentions that she's 47! How about "immortal creature"? Wendy's unusual body type (extremely skinny with a broad sort of waist) is, at first, off-putting. But you will forget this as the doc shows us more and more of the performances of this "finely-tuned instrument." She now has a reputation as one of the best ever. 
How do you throw in the towel before you're even 50? How can you suddenly no longer do the one thing you trained for all your life? At a certain point, Wendy says she'd rather die if she couldn't dance--and she sounds like she means it.
Wendy glides in a kind of freedom that is also a tightly precise motion that makes her look like she is in slow-motion or dancing through water. Her discipline, willpower, determination, sold-out-ness to her art-form and kindness, yes kindness, make Wendy Whelan one in a trillion.

Unbelievably engrossing job-shadowing of "stringers"--the supposedly shady cameramen (mostly men), the vultures of the freeways (California) who often beat the cops and firefighters to the scenes of accidents, fires, shootings and other news (mostly bad news) and then sell it to the news stations. Three different companies are in fierce competition with each other to get there first, get better footage and get it to the stations faster. If you've seen the fictitious "Nightcrawler" (Jake Gyllenhaal), you've been left with an unsavory impression of these cinematographers, but "Shot" might just change that. "Shot in the Dark" is proof that human beings are the storytelling creatures. We can make a story even out of the ones who are telling the story.

A smart thriller. A band of psychopaths who dispose of humans like gum wrappers meet their match in a gentle Chinese doctor and his Chinese doctor wife. Full of blood but also humanity (not on the psychopaths' side, of course). One psycho asks another if he believes in God. The really-bad psycho does and the not-as-bad psycho doesn't but "wants to." Twist after twist after twist. Not for kids. Obvi.

THE STRANGER (1946) Immediately following World War II, ex-Nazi Franz Kindler (Orson Welles) is living under a false identity as a teacher in a small Connecticut town, and has even married the headmaster's daughter (Loretta Young) as part of his cover. This is a brilliant, Welles-directed film. Make sure to focus on the character of the old Nazi who finds Franz in the beginning. He has repented and urges Franz to find redemption in God as well.

THE AGE OF ADALINE Blake Lively is magnificent as a woman who can't age. A very Theology of the Body film: the beauty of life as God has designed it (that is, the default plan after the Fall of Adam and Eve). Sounds like it would be great to never age? Not so much. Romantic drama.

THREE IDENTICAL STRANGERS (2018) This astounding true documentary about 3 NYC baby boy triplets born in 1961--placed for adoption in separate homes--reunite at age 19. They had no idea there were 3 of them. But they uncover a dark secret about themselves. Riveting.

BIRD BOX (2019) This Sandra Bullock dystopian thriller is "Mama" (Jessica Chastain) meets "A Quiet Place." A non-maternal Bullock and two wee ones, a boy and a girl must escape a world filled with monsters who getcha when you SEE them. Thus, blindfolds must be warn when outdoors. Birds are the heroes! Keep 'em around and they'll warn you when something's amiss by their mad cheeping. Women are earth mothers, bravely giving birth and protecting children. Men lay down their lives for women and children. The incredible thing about "seeing evil" is that it's entrancing and oh, so "beautiful." This is said over and over as the seduced and infected gaze into a dazzling light (and kill themselves). THIS IS FASCINATING AND NEEDS UNPACKING. A professional cinematographer friend says that today, evil isn't just glamorous, we have the [cinematic] tools to present evil as "beautiful." It also reminds me of what is said of the "Three Days of Darkness" (cover doors and windows, do not answer the door, do not go outside, do not even LOOK outside):
The one drawback to the film is that Bullock shouts at the poor little munchkins way too much. At first.

"Satan himself masquerades as an angel of light. It is not surprising, then, if his servants also masquerade as servants of righteousness."  --2 Corinthians 11:14-15

THE HIGHWAYMEN (2019) Kevin Costner and Woody Harrelson play the Texas Rangers who tracked down and took down Bonnie and Clyde. Although this film lags a bit here and there, I really, really, really, really liked it. It also cleaves closely to the facts. The Faye Dunaway/Warren Beatty B & C film dominated my childhood but it was so Hollywood, so glamorous, and from Bonnie and Clyde's perspective. We ride with them. "The Highwaymen," instead, is from the law's perspective. We see only glimpses of the elusive, cold-blooded killers, but lots of the haunted men, their tactics, their backstories and their consciences. In case you didn't know: Bonnie and Clyde killed 9 cops and a bunch of civilians. Thomas Newman's soundtrack could not have been more fitting.

LEAVE NO TRACE (2018) Written and directed by Debra Granik ("Winter's Bone"), this compassionate and sympathetic story--of a military veteran living with his teenage daughter in the woods until society discovers them and draws them out--is an absolute keeper, free of sentimentality and tears, but big on humanity. A rare and beautiful father-daughter film.

Adam Sandler and Jennifer Aniston play a husband and wife, cop and hairdresser who get embroiled in a real-life murder mystery. This plays out like a superfun 1970's goofy movie. Pretty OK for the whole fam. (And I'm not a fan of Aniston or Sandler, but this is spot on.)

PATRICK (2018) (British) This pain-in-the-neck best friend of man (a pug) is reluctantly inherited by a young single woman whose life as a teacher is just as bad as her love life. But Patrick may just be a lucky charm. Definitely good family fun.

I absolutely love this character. Must-see family film. "If your purpose is only to live only for yourself, you have no purpose. HELP SOMEONE TODAY."

INTO THE WOODS (Ellen Page & Evan Rachel Wood)
An earthy, unique film by a female Canadian writer/director. A bizarre power outage grips the country. Two young adult women are isolated in their country home with their Dad. What unravels is uniquely feminine.

A surfer (the versatile ingenue, Blake Lively, in an engaging one-woman show) is attacked by a shark in an idyllic but remote surfing setting.

This charming Midwestern indie is set in Wisconsin but shot in Cleveland (Go Monsters!). A young man with a sad past is just coming into his own as his sister is released from prison.