You have a lot of choices for how to spend your weekend. To save some time, here are fun-sized reviews of some fair-to-middling Netflix original movies.
Spotty track record aside, the streaming service is starting to look more like a real distribution company. They don’t have that big breakthrough yet, however, and that’s partially because, outside of their documentaries (watch 13th!) their releases haven’t been that great. Beasts of No Nation, despite an excellent cast and the eye of director Cary Joji Fukunaga, didn’t generate the critical heat Netflix had hoped for — and that’s still the best original film in their catalog. Secondly, the film community at large doesn’t yet take the company seriously; some don’t even consider them “films.” Bong Joon Ho’s “girl and her super pig” adventure Okja, due on the service later this month, received a cold reception from the self-proclaimed snobs at Cannes before it was even screened. Theaters in the Snowpiercer director’s native South Korea are even boycotting it over exclusivity rights.
Mostly, however, Netflix has been investing on the cheap — some picked up at festivals, some just from filmmakers that they like, with a lot of science fiction. For as much profit as the company appears to be generating, they haven’t been in a position to distribute and mount a marketing campaign for a real Oscar contender, much less finance the production of one. However, that may be about to change. Dee Rees’ Mudbound, due later this year, won raves at Sundance. Also look for Duncan Jones’ (Moon) new sci-fi, Mute. Perhaps the better question isn’t whether Netflix will finally break through and make its mark on the film industry, but which film will be the one to do it.
It’s probably not Shimmer Lake, which dropped this weekend. On paper, writer/director Oren Uziel’s debut feature looks fantastic. It’s got a sparkling cast of cult TV actors, including Rainn Wilson, Adam Pally, John Michael Higgins, Rob Corddry, Ron Livingston, and up-and-comer Wyatt Russell. And the story’s got the kind of gimmick that screams “indie darling”: a small-town bank robbery presented in reverse, Memento-style. Benjamin Walker plays Sheriff Sikes, fending off boorish FBI investigators (Corddry and Livingston) as he tries to track down the thieves, one of whom is his brother Andy (Wilson). The film plays out in four “chapters,” each covering a day: Friday, than Thursday, etc. A character wakes up; a fresh corpse is discovered; retroactive clues are dropped; motivations are slowly revealed.
The film ends with the robbery itself and the all-but-required twist that, while it did catch me somewhat by surprise, is soap opera in its execution. Unfortunately, and it pains me to say this because I knew nothing about this film except what was on its IMDB page and I really wanted to like it, Shimmer Lake isn’t terribly clever beyond its temporal tomfoolery, and surprisingly not that funny for a film with a cast of sitcom veterans. Most of the actors treat the material as an adventure in deadpan Coen karaoke, with mixed results, and others play it completely straight. I liked Walker’s serious, velvet-voiced sheriff, who wouldn’t be out of place in an episode of Fargo. But the others are pretty thinly drawn, the dialogue is forced, and Uziel doesn’t do a good enough job at making you care for the first 70 minutes before telling you why you should in the last 15.
Shimmer Lake is worth a watch if you like structural experiments, and at least it’s short, but it mostly feels like a wasted opportunity — which isn’t atypical of a directorial debut. I’d still be curious to see what Uziel does next.
The best joke in War Machine, David Michod’s attempt at a true-life, 21st-century Catch-22, hits in the first few minutes. Brad Pitt plays General Glen McMahon, modeled after Stanley McChrystal, who famously lost his job leading forces in Afghanistan after getting a little too candid with a Rolling Stone reporter. I’m as big a fan of Goober Brad Pitt as anyone (Burn After Reading, or Inglourious Basterds, which he’s clearly harkening back to here), but with a script as inconsistent as this one, all he can lean on is the physical comedy. So every fifteen minutes or so, we’re treated to wide shots of McMahon doing his daily morning run, loping strides, arms out like a disinterested zombie. It’s hilarious the first time, but sadder with each reoccurrence. Which sums up War Machine: too inconsistently funny as satire, and too simpleminded to make an effective political statement.
There are moments, though. Flashes of what the film could have been, if it was a little less smug and had a little more courage. Though it disappoints as a story about military quagmires in the tradition of Three Kings, I liked Machine better as a character study, and Pitt is effective as the bullheaded general convinced of his own rightness in the face of resounding evidence to the contrary. Men like McMahon rise to positions of power all the time, usually after some smaller success that they took disproportionate credit for. He means well, but he’s also surrounded by sycophants: Anthony Michael Hall as a Michael Flynn analogue; Emory Cohen as his devious aide; Topher Grace as his shameless spin doctor. He hypes up his operations and need for a big troop surge, and fumes over constantly rescheduled “face time” with the commander-in-chief (played here by a somewhat distracting body double). He struggles to keep the attention of the apathetic President Karzai (Ben Kingsley), who notes McMahon’s “new direction” sounds a lot like the old direction.
And for some reason, whether out of cockiness or recklessness, McMahon and his team eventually have a little too much to drink and spill their politically incorrect opinions to embedded reporter Sean Cullen (Scoot McNairy), whose mocking narration plays over the entire film. Cullen’s observations, however, don’t go any deeper than you’d find on Twitter, which are a poor service to the late Michael Hastings’ book The Operators on which the film is based. It’s also telling that War Machine’s most evocative sequence, following a mixed-success mission to take back a village from insurgents, doesn’t feature Cullen or McMahon at all. Instead, we get a glimpse into the minds of these solders (including Atlanta’s Lakeith Stanfield) who arrive in a warzone and are ordered to do the opposite of what they’ve been trained to do. It also feels like a completely different movie. In mashing broad comedy with the urge to Make a Point, Michod struggles with both, and shows a similar hubris to his protagonist.
Netflix is at the beginning of a fruitful relationship with writer-director Joe Swanberg, whose inexpensive, largely improvised films have had a tendency to make a splash at festivals like Sundance, then disappear. Swanberg’s followup to Easy, his first television series and first project picked up by the company, is Win it All, a scruffy charmer in one of cinema’s most reliable genres: the Bag of Money story.
Jake Johnson, a frequent Swanberg collaborator, plays a guy named Eddie who is asked to hold onto a mysterious duffle bag by a jail-bound acquaintance. Naturally, he can’t resist looking inside; naturally, because he has a gambling problem (he’s “addicted to losing,” as Keegan-Michael Key’s sponsor describes it) he can’t help but quickly lose thousands of dollars. The rest of the 88-minute film is about Eddie, having officially hit rock bottom, trying to dig his way out of his hole by getting a real job (landscaping for his brother’s company, played by Joe Lo Truglio), maintaining his dignity for his new girlfriend (Aislinn Derbez) and holding his breath until his friend returns to reclaim the bag.
It’s a breezy watch, thanks to Johnson’s natural charisma and Swanberg’s no-frills direction. The best moments are of the observational kind, and the banter between the small but talented cast. When the clock starts to run out on both Eddie and Swanberg, however, the film squirms out of its self-painted corner with the breathless expediency of a live act that’s just been flashed the “Wrap Up” sign. A too-pat conclusion doesn’t necessarily diminish the experience, but it doesn’t give Win It All much staying power, either. On the other hand, it’s the most successful of these three films, at least partially due to the modesty of its own expectations.