Netflix, Your Online Comedy Club

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When you work as a tax preparer, I guess you should be prepared to not touch your Netflix blog for a month or two. When you’ve got a busy schedule, sometimes you don’t have the mental energy to watch a movie (well, one that requires you to use your brain). I certainly don’t have the time or energy to binge watch a tv show (we have enough to watch at the moment anyway with broadcast/cable television- Feud, The Americans, American Crime, and TIME: The Kalief Browder Story took up all our time this tax season).

Although Netflix certainly has its flaws, it is a master at doing just enough to keep you subscribed to their streaming service (although I have thought of the idea that someone does- subscribing just long enough to watch the new content they want to see, then cancelling, but that seems like too much work). That’s a good thing, as my Netflix bill went up $2 last month, and they should be able to justify that somehow.

Netflix has recently acquired exclusive comedy specials from big stars. It’s almost as if someone read my tired mind this last few months, and decided they needed to address the needs of the “too tired to think or not willing to commit to an entire TV series” online audience. Although they have all sorts of stand up comedy specials, we’ve had the chance to catch their high profile comedy specials. Humor is certainly a personal thing, so a straight up review of each is kind of pointless. But having enjoyed each of this comedian’s work in the past, I can at least compare it to some of their other work.

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As with Louis, your best bet if you want to see the best Amy Schumer material is her HBO Special Live at the Apollo. Although I found parts of this funny, if you read online reviews, you’ll find this to be very lowly rated by some critics and fans, not just the inevitable men who don’t find her or any female comedians to be funny. Nearly all the jokes have to do with raunch, sex, smelly body parts, etc. Although it’s not breaking new ground for her, she still knows how to sell the material. Her facial expressions often are funnier than the jokes themselves. I’m not sure Schumer is as “edgy” as she thinks she is. For me, it was enjoyable, if not disposable, special. It certainly shouldn’t be the reason for you to sign up for Netflix. Grade: C+

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Perhaps the return of Dave Chappelle would be a reason to get Netflix. A historical event on par with the return of Jesus himself, I’m sure if you’re at all interested in comedy the release of his two Netflix specials, The Age of Spin and Deep in the Heart of Texas, didn’t escape your attention. Also, if you enjoy his comedy, how have you not watched this yet? You must be busier than I am. As it stands, I only managed to watch The Age of Spin, less because of busy-ness or lack of interest, and more of leaving something to look forward to. Spin is well worth your time. Unlike the other comedians I’m reviewing in this post, you can easily see how much thought Chappelle gives to the structure of his act (I’m sure Louis does as well, although it’s less obvious at times). A joke that seems to be just a funny anecdote will come back around later in the act to make a joke about Bill Cosby funnier and more meaningful and insightful. Although his act definitely has a structure, he is obviously having fun with the crowd and interacting with them, so much so that he apparently forgets his last anecdote about the final time he met O.J. (periodically he’ll bring up these meetings throughout the act), having to do an “encore” for the crowd to complete his act. The funniest bits have to do with his retelling of fans who DIDN’T find him funny. Nothing can compare to what he did on his show, and I actually think his best  work recently was his monologue on SNL (and the rest of that show), but you won’t regret watching this special. Grade: A –

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Like Schumer, Louis is a comedian who can just make me laugh with just a facial expression (see above picture with his deer-in-the-headlight look, for instance). Luckily, he also can make me laugh by going to some weird, dark places. And while very much of his act seems off the cuff and ad-libbed, if you’ve watched his show, you know he’s a thinker, and probably carefully plans out everything he does. Perhaps even such a generic title as “2017” has meaning, especially since there seems to be nothing about this special that specifically addresses the issues we’re facing this year. Much of this could’ve been in a special three years ago. Even a bit about Christianity having “won” has nothing to do with the presidential election and the religious right getting their way with the current administration in power. But it’s probably the funniest bit in the show, and is probably Louie’s indirect way of addressing the current political climate – by putting it in perspective, or at least his perspective. Perhaps his bit about feeling a little gay when watching “Magic Mike” addresses the homophobia that much of the country still can’t get over. I’m sure his choice to change his wardrobe- from the ubiquitous jeans and black T-Shirt to a suit- was a conscious decision to distance himself from even the look of the typical, white Male Trump-supporter- the common-looking middle-class schlub that want to make America great again.

Or maybe not. I do know that Louis is obsessed with things that make us uncomfortable, and he loves to dive right into it. That’s why from the very first line of this special he discusses abortion, then follows it up with talking about suicide. Although not his best special, it’s a good one. Grade: B+

What is his best? Oh My God, an HBO special that you can watch for free if you have Amazon Prime. Oh My God Grade: A+

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Black Mirror: Seasons 1 and 2 Review

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Well, it seems I’ve let another month go by without reviewing (or watching) much of anything. I’ve been able to catch a few movies in the theater. ( Skip Silencea real slog of a movie that misses the point of its source material, and somehow transforms a mere 191 page novel into 2 hours and 41 minutes of cinematic dramamine; a mild recommendation for 20th Century Women ). We’ve had a busy life this New Year, so finding time at home for a movie has been a challenge. But with the current dearth of broadcast television shows that we like to watch (most of which are on FX and aren’t currently showing), we’ve found time to finally watch a TV show that I’ve had a lot of interest in for years- Black Mirror.

I know that there’s probably been a lot written about this show, which I have purposefully avoided so I could go into the viewing experience without any preconceptions. About the only preconception I had going in is that this was supposed to some kind of modern The Twilight Zone. Not quite, but it’s unsettling in what it reveals about human nature, much in the same way as that classic series was at its best.

If you feel like you have accomplished something after watching a season of a TV series, then this is the series for you. Season 1 and 2 total only 7 episodes (and with Season 3 thrown in, which I haven’t finished, only 13 episodes). So you can impress all your friends with how you watched the whole series in one weekend. They don’t need to know that it’s only half as much time and pain as watching a full season of What’s Happening Now?

I would seriously consider skipping some episodes, unless you’re a completist like me. Anyways, here’s a quick review of each episode of Season 1 and 2 (links are to Wikipedia, if want to read a synopsis of each episode).

SEASON 1 

EPISODE 1: “The National Anthem

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Absolutely offal. I mean, awful. Yeah, I went there with my choice of the pic for this episode. I usually shy away from spoilers, but this will all be spoilers, so skip this if you don’t want to know about this episode. I seriously consider not watching anymore after this one. One of the worst TV episodes of all time. And it’s not just because the Prime Minister of England is “forced” to fuck a pig live on television so that a member of the royal family is spared by her kidnappers. Yeah, that’s gross, but nothing, NOTHING about what happens in this episode is realistic, or reveals much about our nature as humans to revel in someone else’s humiliation, and our nature to forgive and forget. But that’s exactly what this episode thinks it’s doing. I don’t buy that any P.M. would feel they would have to do this. I also don’t believe that when the finger of the young female royal is delivered to the police to show that the kidnapper is serious about his/her threat to kill the royal, that no one would notice that it looks nothing like a female’s finger. Did she have man hands? How would a middle aged man’s finger pass for a young female’s finger? Fucking stupid. Also, terrorist threat or not, I don’t think a whole nation would stop and watch anyone fuck a pig. I also didn’t understand the reaction of the PM’s wife in the aftermath. Or what the supposed “artist” was trying to say or show anyone with this stunt. In fact, the only behavior that makes sense is the pig’s. GRADE: F- (for F this episode)

EPISODE 2: “Fifteen Million Merits

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A little better, but not by much. The idea is good, and the eventual result of the story is interesting, but it takes way too long to get to its point. There are also some storylines or characters that seemingly have no point. Running at 62 minutes, it could have easily been 45 minutes or less. GRADE: C- (skip it)

EPISODE 3: “The Entire History of You

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If it wasn’t for this episode, I might have given up on this series. While not quite dependent on a twist like The Twilight Zone, this does have somewhat of a twist by showing no matter what technology can do, it can’t overcome basic human nature and our flaws. Unlike the first episode of this series, where no one in it behaves like any human I know, the characters  are completely believable. The stakes seem real, and the story takes no giant leaps in logic to make its point. You should start the series with this episode. GRADE: A+

SEASON 2

EPISODE 1: “Be Right Back

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Pretty good episode. I enjoyed seeing Hailey Atwell and Domnhall Gleeson in this. This is more of a sad episode. I can say that I can totally see someone in Atwell’s position making these choices in her grief. It also introduces a theme that recurs throughout Black Mirror– where is the line between human and artificial intelligence? That is to say, even without a physical body, is any thing that is conscious of its existence in the same way we are any different than us? Do they deserve to be treated equally? Are they equally deserving of our mercy (or punishment)? GRADE: A –

Episode 2: “White Bear

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Another great episode. This episode features a twist that turns the mystery at the center of the story in a scathing criticism of western society’s thirst for Old Testament-style punishment, and the desensitized, yet voyeuristic society that gets some fleeting satisfaction in watching that justice play out on their smart phones.

GRADE: A

EPISODE 3: “The Waldo Moment

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The other episode that blows chunks. If it wasn’t for the parallels between Waldo and Trump, there wouldn’t be much that is interesting or believable in this episode. Like “The National Anthem,” the people in this episode don’t behave like anyone I know. And like that episode, “Waldo” paints the average Englishman as gullible, dumb, and easily amused by annoying cartoon characters. I could say the same thing about Trump voters, but I still think most people were not just voting for him because they were entertained, but because they weren’t informed or voted out of fear, putting their blinders on. The conversation where the CIA operative shows interest in exporting Waldo is eerie in its prescience regarding recent political outcomes. But it’s not enough to make this episode watchable or believable. While the aforementioned CIA conversation is probably meant to explain the ending, the ending still doesn’t quite make sense to me. GRADE: D (for as Dumb as Donald)

2014 Special: “White Christmas

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I’m actually in awe of this episode. Jon Hamm’s great, it works even several themes that are part of previous episodes, and different storylines that build and complement each other. I could tell you more, but if you had to only watch one episode of this series, this is it. GRADE: A++

Season 3 review to come soon.

Minimalism: A Documentary (good New Year’s Resolution Ideas for everyone)

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Happy New Year, everyone! Today’s review is of a movie that I actually watched right before Christmas on Netflix. I felt that it would’ve been the perfect antidote to the excess of that holiday. Unfortunately, the excess of that holiday kept me from getting to this blog. But in the spirit of making resolutions, and offering ideas for people looking for resolutions (realistic resolutions: you may say you want to spend more time at the gym, but do you really want to? Do you really want to spend more time on a bench with anonymous sweat? NO! You don’t! Sorry, getting off topic and making up your mind for you), I recommend giving Minimalism: A Documentary about The Important Things (2016) a try.

In fitting with minimalism, this documentary is only 1 hr 19 minutes. It just scratches the surface of a “movement” that decries materialism in favor of less possessions and more life experience. So it’s somewhat odd that perhaps too much time is spent following two former materialists, Joshua Fields Millburn and Ray Nicodemus, as they go on tour promoting their book about minimalism. Of course, it would be more minimalist to just hand out free flyers to people instead of going on and on for a whole book, but hey, even minimalists need to make a living. Despite my snark, these guys are sincere, have good insights into what made them unfulfilled in their professional life, and they meet interesting people along the way. However, they seem to be less interesting than a lot of the other people in the movie who get much less screen time. For example, people familiar with Dan Harris and his book 10 Percent Happier will enjoy hearing about his experiences with mindfulness, but won’t hear anything new of course. I can’t expect the film to delve into the details that a book does, but you feel like they barely scratch the surface when it comes to the connection between minimalism and mindfulness. Sam Harris, a neuroscientist, also gets too little screen time.

Of course, a documentary about minimalism would have to touch on the tiny house movement. If you watch HGTV or DIY channels, you can’t go too long without seeing shows like “Tiny House Hunters” (not good, really. too often hipsters settle for a camper or what is basically just a small apartment). One of the better Tiny House shows is on the DiY channel. I think it’s called “Tiny House, Big Living” but it deals more with the design and building of tiny homes, and it’s inspiring to see the innovative designs that are aesthetically pleasing, yet functional for a tiny space. I bring this up because this movie does touch on the tiny house movement in relation to minimalism, and I think it does an adequate job of explaining what that’s about very succinctly. However, there is an apartment design in New York that is shown ever so briefly, where you see the same space being transformed into a dining room, a bedroom, a living room, and how what is also a closet can be turned into a guest room. Yet there is zero follow up on this design- it’s shown and then the director moves on. I actually think this could be more revolutionary than tiny houses, because having a multifunctional space in an apartment is easier than buying a tiny house, and then finding land to put the tiny house  on (which is not an option for many urban Californians like me).

Somehow this documentary still worked for me, perhaps because of its weakness. By touching the surface only, it feels like a briskly-paced, yet not hyperkinetic, film. I supposed you could go to the website at https://minimalismfilm.com/ and purchase bonus interviews to get more in depth. There’s also a female professor (unfortunately I can’t remember her name) who probably has the best insights of anyone in this film, and also the best one-liner about how kids are inundated with commercials these days that are trying to convince them they need to buy “crap.” As she says this, we’re shown several toy commercials in rapid succession, most all of it stuff I’ve never seen before. I wondered if my Transformers and Star Wars toys were also crap when I was a kid. At least there was some kind of “story” to the commercials that sucked 5-year old Aaron into convincing his parents to GET THEM ALL! Anyhow, her take on how we are not really true “materialistic” people in the sense that we don’t really value the material at all, we value what it symbolizes, is just one of the little moments in this documentary that should make you think, and should make you want to take steps to simplify your life by getting rid of stuff you don’t need or value.

Unless of course you enjoy “crap” as much as the next person. But according to Nicodemus and Milburn, your book collection is okay if it brings you joy. Just don’t overdo it. Luckily, streaming does provide us with the ability to ditch the DVD collection (DVD’s? What are those?) somewhat. You should check this documentary out rather than watching more Fuller House.

IMDB rating: 7 out of 10

Horror Genre Review: ABSENTIA (2011)

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There’s been a couple of predominant movements in the horror genre over the last decade. The first, starting with the overhyped and underwhelming The Blair Witch Project (1999), attempts to create immediacy and authenticity through handheld cams and “found footage.”  This subgenre picked up some steam with Paranormal Activity (2007), but it appears to be dying out for now.  Perhaps audiences realize that shaky cams and cheap scares don’t make up for a dumb plot and severe problems with the logic of the found footage (See my review of Apollo 18).

The other direction horror has gone concentrates on ideas that will scare you.  The producers of Paranormal Activity (the folks at Blumhouse Productions) have also teamed up to create a good number of these films, including Insidious (2011),  Sinister (2012) ,  Dark Skies (2013), and the recently released Oculus (2014), which is directed by Absentia‘s Mike Flanagan.

Absentia (2011) only had a budget of $70,000.  I’m not sure who would have seen this movie before it was on Netflix, but I’m glad that Mike Flanagan was rewarded by being given more to work with on Oculus.  But Absentia is more than just an audition tape.  It actually feels like the synthesis of the two movements–the low budget actually doesn’t hinder the look of the film at all; it gives the immediacy and intimacy the found footage films want to create, but it also has a really intriguing and scary idea that drives the film forward.  Yes, the suburban setting with the cookie-cutter apartment screams, “We couldn’t afford a filming permit in Los Angeles!” (Who can?), but it also makes you feel like this could really happen and is really happening.  Plus, that tunnel is one of the scariest tunnels I’ve seen in a movie, right up there with the underpass in Irreversible (2002).

I’ll leave you with the synopsis on IMDb.  There are a lot of horror movies on Netflix you’ve never heard of–this one is worth your time.

IMDb Synopsis:

Tricia’s husband Daniel has been missing for seven years. Her younger sister Callie comes to live with her as the pressure mounts to finally declare him ‘dead in absentia.’ As Tricia sifts through the wreckage and tries to move on with her life, Callie finds herself drawn to an ominous tunnel near the house. As she begins to link it to other mysterious disappearances, it becomes clear that Daniel’s presumed death might be anything but ‘natural.’ The ancient force at work in the tunnel might have set its sights on Callie and Tricia … and Daniel might be suffering a fate far worse than death in its grasp (Written by Mike Flanagan).

Netflix rating: 4 stars

IMDb rating: 7 out of 10

Review of Oscar Nominated The Hunt (Jagten) now on Streaming

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One might think that Netflix may not be that useful for the home viewer to make their own decision about who the winner should be. Netflix would seem even less useful, as a lot of nominees, if they are not still in the theaters, are only available on DVD. There is however one category where you can use Netflix streaming (almost) exclusively to decide what the best film is (more on that later this week). Jagten (The Hunt) (2012), now on streaming, has been nominated for Best Foreign Language Film. (The 2012 date can seem confusing, but I guess it qualifies for the Oscars because the 2012 is from a festival, and it was released in Denmark in January 2013).

Thomas Vinterberg wrote and directed this film. You may know him from writing and directing the Dogma film Festen (1998), which was criminally ignored by the Oscars that year, but received plenty of other awards and recognition. It also has earned its place at #222 on IMDB’s Top 250. Jagten is like a companion piece to Festen, looking at the flip side of sexual abuse, and how it affects someone who is falsely accused. VInterberg masterfully portrayed the hurt and suffering of a sordid and scandalous family secret in Festen; you felt the protagonist’s pain, delighted in the cathartic pleasure of bringing the evil in the family out into the light, and were shocked by the stubbornness of the family to see the truth. It presented the epitome of a family gathering gone wrong; we’ve all experienced an uncomfortable dinner, but not quite like that.

Jagten (The Hunt) taps into similar emotions just as effectively. People are just as stubborn as in Festen, and as ugly. Mads Mikkelsen (who seems to be in almost every other foreign movie on Netflix streaming) is perfect in the lead role, and I was also impressed by Lasse Fogelstrom, his son who believes his father is innocent. Jagten is a film to be experienced like Festen, so I won’t spend too much time discussing plot points. The synopsis on IMDB tells you all you need to know so I include it here: “A teacher lives a lonely life, all the while struggling over his son’s custody. His life slowly gets better as he finds love and receives good news from his son, but his new luck is about to be brutally shattered by an innocent little lie.” Just like Vinterberg’s previous masterpiece, the lie revolves around child abuse. Although this film covers some of the same emotional terrain as Prisoners (2013), it is not ambiguous in the innocence or guilt of the accused, and while Prisoners indulged in the vigilante impulse in order to question it, Jagten leaves no question about the barbarity and ugliness when a town lets emotion blind them to reason and rationality.

You will be angry, but largely sympathetic to most of the characters (the accuser’s father, for example). The ending of the film at first seem to not fit the rest of the film, and be uncharacteristic of VInterberg, and frankly unrealistic. But the last minute is perfect, and tempers the hopefulness that precedes it with a large dose of reality- that once allegations are out there, they never really disappear.

My IMDB Rating: 9/10

My Netflix Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

 

 

Netflix a good investing option?

Netflix a good investing option?

Maybe this is a little beyond the scope of my blog, but I have wondered if Netflix will thrive in the long run, due to increasing competition from HBO and Hulu Plus, for example. This writer offers the opinion that it will be good for Netflix in the long run. I hope so, but if not, I may have to change the name of this blog sometime down the road to something more general, like Aaron’s Streaming Movies Review (Streaming makes it sound somehow wrong, like “Aaron’s Steaming Pile of Reviews”). Pay attention to the comments below. Someone mentions something called a Rabbit that sounds like it could be serious competitition (if it’s not just someone plugging their product). Hopefully this writer is right.

Review of Stand Up Guys

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Stand Up Guys (2012) is a perfect example of what I used to call a “blockbuster” movie. “Blockbuster” as in when you see a trailer for it in the theater, you say “Hey, this movie has Al Pacino, Christopher Walken, and Alan Arkin! But it doesn’t look that good.” So you skip it in the movie theater, but in the 1990s when you go to Blockbuster Video six months later, all the copies of the movies you really wanted to rent are out, so you see this one and you figure it’s “good enough” for a rental, along with 2 or 3 other movies that have someone in them you recognize, but you couldn’t quite muster up the energy or the time or the $5 to see it in the theater.

Look how far we’ve come as a society! Now the whole “eh, it’s good enough for a home viewing” process can completely take place on your couch, thanks to Netflix streaming. Too bad Netflix doesn’t have more of these type of titles. Well, maybe they do, and I just never think they are worth my time when there are other movies that might be good.

I guess I haven’t even technically reviewed this film yet, but it is the equivalent of a Blockbuster rental. The movie is directed by Fisher Stevens, who is better known (or at least seen) as an actor. Stand Up Guys is the first full-length movie script for screenwriter Noah Haidle, and I’m sure this movie was made because at least they could underpay the director and screenwriter, even if the trio of well-known actors didn’t take a pay cut to make this. The screenplay is a bit flat- some jokes hit their mark, while others are corny and obvious. The film goes where you expect it to. There was enough here where if they had gone a slightly different direction, it might have been memorable on some level. But it ends as you suspect, and if you suspect it is going to end the way many other films have, you (or at least I) won’t remember come this time next year. On a side note, I will say that I enjoyed this a lot more than Nebraska (2013)currently my nomination for the most overrated film of the year. Nebraska was also written by a first-timer, and I don’t look forward to either his or Haidle’s work in the future.

As for the acting, I remember the advertising for Stand Up Guys positioning itself as a comedy in the same vein as the more commerically successful Last Vegas (2013) (which I have not seen). It’s more of a dramedy, and at the very least I am happy to report that Al Pacino does a decent job here, and is not a complete caricature of himself. He is believable as an ex-con who has to face the consequences of the actions that lead him to prison, even on the day of his release. He certainly doesn’t embarrass himself like he’s done so much in the last decade or so (88 Minutes anyone?). Christopher Walken is good as almost always, playing the colleague of Pacino’s ex-con, who has to deliver street justice, albeit reluctantly. Alan Arkin’s part is pretty good, but far too short. Julianna Margulies is featured as Arkin’s daughter, and her role here will make fans of ER at least smile, if not chuckle. You’ll probably recognize Lucy Punch from other roles, while Vanessa Ferlito’s part seems to belong in another movie.

If you’re curious, or a fan of any of the actors, it may be worth your time. It is only 1hr 35 mins.

My IMDB rating: 5 out of 10

My Netflix rating: 2 out of 5