Between Two Ferns: The Movie 2019 ****

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Is it too late for Netflix to bring the funny? With Amazon investing billions in established IP like Lord of the Rings, it seems perverse that Netflix’s latest big investment is decades-old episodes of Seinfield to complement decades-old episodes of Friends. Not that these shows aren’t great, but they’re placeholders for new comedy that’s yet to appear. Tapping into existing comedy like Joel McHale didn’t work, even though his show had some great stuff in it, so this harnessing of popular content from Funny Or Die seems like a step towards  giving Netflix an identity based on putting smiles on faces.

Zach Galifianakis has been ploughing an amusing furrow with his talk-show parody Between Two Ferns, originally Betwixt Two Ferns as he mentions in Scott Aukerman’s expanded reboot. There’s elements of Ali G as Galifianakis says and does exactly what an interviewer should not, drawing attention to himself, mis-representing his guests, and just being plain rude; there’s plenty of big names willing to show themselves as good sports. This time around, it’s pretty clear that there was an Avengers movie sending a roster of names to the set; Benedict Cumberbatch, Tessa Thompson and Brie Larson keep a straight face while names, acting talents and personal quirks are insensitively discussed.

There’s also a fresh frame; Funny Or Die boss Will Ferrell closes down the set after it gets destroyed during a sprinkler disaster that nearly drowns a game Matthew McConaughey. Galifianakis and his team head cross-country to find stars and interview them in their homes, and there’s some neatly developed sketches that turn the format on its head; a one-night stand with Chrissy Teigen leads to a troubled visit from husband John Legend. Otherwise, it’s fun to see Jon Hamm, Peter Dinklage, and perennial Netflix self-parodist Keanu Reeves allowing pot-shots at themselves; the good humour is infectious.

The shortness of the interview sections works a little against the premise, but Between Two Ferns: The Movie works far better than, say Ali G In Da House in that it stays true to the interview-based origins of the conceit. And at the centre is a strong comic character; Galifianakis is vain, downtrodden, pretentious, snarky and not as smart as he thinks. There’s mileage in the way he takes down celebrities; in an age when few interviewers pack a punch, Between Two Ferns offers fake takedowns of today’s ‘hot idiots’ in entertaining fashion.

https://www.netflix.com/watch/80243600?source=35

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Toast of London 2013-2015 ****

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Netflix has proved an unlikely platform for audiences discovering tv shows that they’d previously spurned; You was something of a small-screen flop before the streaming service relaunched it last Christmas. Channel 4’s Toast of London is a very different animal, but deserving of re-discovery on Netflix UK and US. The humour is very knowing, and somewhat unique; Stephen Toast (Matt Berry) is an actor who has been bumming around the London scene for years; his high opinion of himself is matched only by his low opinion of others, notably rival Ray Purchase (Harry Peacock). Toast’s agent Jane Plough (Doon Mackirchan) does get him work, but it’s usually pay-the-rent voice-over work that puts him in the orbit of clue-less, drug-addled hipster Clem Fandango (Shazad Latif). Toast’s exchanges with all these characters, and with landlord Ed Howzer-Black (Robert Bathurst), are often agonising but also amusing. From Father Ted creator Arthur Matthews, Toast of London has a wild and experimental edge, with circuitous conversations that end in unexpected ways, plus crude sexual pratfalls mixed with acidic satire of British luvvies. It’s funny, original and is slowly creeping into the mainstream in a way that would make a Toast revival a tasty prospect; a welcome fourth series has been mooted.

https://www.netflix.com/watch/80108561?source=35

Frankenstein’s Monster’s Monster Frankenstein 2019 ****

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Actor David Harbour presumably had a blank check to cash on the back of his success in Stranger Things; it’s a shame that the actor couldn’t find anything better to do with his Netflix cash than to rest on his family laurels. Harbour has taken it upon himself to exhume footage from his father David Harbour Jr’s excellent TV production of Frankenstein; a classic show, fondly remembered, but ill-served by his son’s piece-meal handling of the footage here. Harbour’s grandfather, the great David Harbour III must surely be turning in his grave, as must Mary Shelley’s poor, beknighted creation. Of course, it doesn’t help that so many of the ideas here have been done better elsewhere; the iconic meat commercial featured here was ripped off shamelessly by Transformers star Orson Welles for his Frozen Pea performance art installation, and the abrupt commercials, plus the rickety doors and windows of the set were an obvious influence of Dan Curtis’s Dark Shadows. Even the title is a clear spin on Kenneth Branagh’s Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein; it’s hard to imagine that an actor as storied as Harbour isn’t aware of that text, or even of the IMDB itself where such information might freely be found! Still, there’s some vague amusement to be found as Harbour questions those who remember his father, with faded stars like Alfred Molina, Kate Berlant, and newcomers like Mary Wonorov and Michael J. Lerner, still remembered from the Back to the Future films. It would have been better to use Harbour’s ill gotten gains for a full restoration of The Actor’s Trunk, a much admired show given precious little screen-time here, than on this miserly cash in on the Harbour family jewels. Perhaps Harbour’s proposed sequel, tentatively pre-cancelled at Amazon Instant Now Video Today and titled Frankenstein’s Monster’s Monster Frankenstein; The True Story, should be made just to set things right.

https://www.netflix.com/watch/81003981?source=35

Stranger Things 1-3 2016-2019 ****

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The brightest jewel in the Netflix crown is the Duffer Brothers riff on the kids sci-fi genre that apes Stephen King and various 80’s horror fads; with the latest series (3) taking place largely at a 4th of July carnival, Stranger Things is a cross-generational funhouse that, according to Netflix’s hall-of-mirrors figures, every sentient member of every household in the western world watched several times each within seconds of being put online. Stranger Things somehow found a sweet spot by fusing elements of King’s Firestarter (a girl on the run from authorities with telekinesis), plus the small-town kiddie-gang adventurers from It, then throws in the gelid alien attack from The Tommyknockers to boot. The big-draw name above the title name was Winona Ryder, although the series success has made pretty much everyone in the well-assembled cast a household name; Millie Bobbie Brown makes a big impression as Eleven, David Harbor exudes a gruff chemistry as police chief Jim Hopper, and the kids are great, with a smattering of 80’s names (Sean Aston, Paul Reiser, Matthew Modine, Cary Elwes) to keep older viewers engaged. As well as nailing the key font for the titles and the cod Tangerine Dream score, the key to the formula, kids and adults joining forces to fight to creatures leaking through government experiment portals, is that Stranger Things presents a warmly aspirational world, more focused on the likable characters than on the monsters. If the second series was too similar to the first, the third manages to balance up the gender issues and freshen up the team to good effect; Netflix need a dozen series that command loyalty like this to survive the streaming wars, so it’s likely that various expanded-universe incarnations of Stranger Things will be around long after the original lightning-in-a bottle cast have moved on.

https://www.netflix.com/watch/80057281?source=35

The Highwaymen 2019 ***

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Originally developed as a reteaming for Paul Newman and Robert Redford, this project was re-nosed with younger stars as part of Netflix’s on-going scramble for content. It’s obvious why they exhumed this project; The Highwayman has a fresh slant on a familiar story; it’s about the men who caught Bonnie and Clyde. While the 1967 film reflected the notion of Bonnie and Clyde as folk heroes, and dealt with the myth to good effect. John Lee Hancock’s thriller de-mythologises them, and presents them as anonymous, drug-addled and violent critters, almost entirely off-camera. Instead the focus is on Kevin Costner and Woody Harrelson as the two Texas Rangers brought in by Texas state governor Miriam ‘Ma’ Ferguson (Kathy Bates) to hunt down the bank-robbers. The template is Costner’s The Untouchables, with a tight focus on frustrated men reaching within themselves for the strength to fight crime. The Highwaymen is some straight-up macho posturing, high on weapons, law, cigarettes and toughness, and it’ll be snapped up by older audiences who find the PC nature of modern films too weak to stomach. There’s lots to enjoy in two big star performances, a strong sense of period detail (as you’d expect from a $50 million production) and a decidedly old-school ‘respect the law’ POV.

https://www.netflix.com/title/80200571

When They See Us 2019 ****

The influence of the Paradise Lost documentaries about the West Memphis Three is immense; with digital film-making making it possible for true-life court cases to be examined, dramatized and even influenced through the media, it’s no surprise that true crime is almost as important to Netflix as a genre as rom-coms. Ava DuVernay’s When they See Us is a prestigious example of the form; a dramatization of events concerning the Central Park Five, it’s a glossy and compelling drama split into four sections, each roughly the length of a feature film. The first considers the night a white female jogger was raped in Central Park, and the forced confessions elicited from youths in the area that night. The second concerns itself with the court-case, with Vera Famiga contributing an awesome turn as a prosecution lawyer. The third focuses on the men trying to adjust when they get released from jail, and the fourth on the experience of Corey Wise, played with great power as both a boy and a man by Jharrel Jerome.  This is probably DuVernay’s best work to date, rarely hitting a false note and delivering a sobering account of how hidden but inherent racial prejudice can rob innocent people of their lives.  White audiences who like to imagine that race is a problem already solved may want to focus on how easily both law and media are bent out of shape by the rush to judgement here, a feeding frenzy fuelled by newspaper ads paid for by Donald Trump. But the big question is; why tell this story, and why now? Documentaries like Paradise Lost have influenced actual outcomes of court cases; the Central Park 5 were released some time ago, but the motivation behind When They See Us seems political; it’s surely no accident the June 2019 release coincides with the start of Donald Trump’s presidential re-election bid, and efforts to mobilise both black and white votes against him start here.

https://www.netflix.com/gb/title/80200549?source=35

The Perfection 2019 ***

A savvy pick-up from Netflix, The Perfection is a tricky thriller from director Richard Shepard; without giving any of the plot twists away, The Perfection starts out like an innocuous tale of music-school rivalry and then takes the kind of very dark twists that should cause teenagers to flock to post on social media. As a regular director on Lena Dunham’s Girls, Shepard is hardly an unknown quantity, but his film work includes The Matador and Dom Hemingway, two excellent examples of how a big stars’s fame (Pierce Brosnan and Jude Law respectively) can be entertainingly subverted to dramatic effect. Here, it’s genre conventions which get bent; Charlotte (Allison Williams) and Lizzie (Logan Browning) are attending the same music school, and meet up again in Shanghai, where they begin a sexual relationship. But there’s a plague of sorts going around, and a bus journey leads to violence and trauma. The Perfection’s big mid-way twist doesn’t quite fit the action in the second half of the film, and the story elements don’t gel, and yet it’s still reasonably fun to take the journey, even if the final revelations will cause some eye-rolling. Williams and Browning both make a big impression, but it’s the impish wit of Shepard that makes The Perfection worth watching.

https://www.netflix.com/gb/title/80211638?source=35