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

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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

Shaft 2019 ***

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Reports of franchise fatigue affecting the US box office miss one off-putting element; anyone who bought a ticket for Shaft, Isn’t It Romantic? Annihilation or many other titles must have felt sorely ripped-off when they found the film they just shelled out $20 bucks to see if freely available at home on HD. For major studios to cut their losses by selling the foreign rights to their films on Netlix can only create buyers remorse and disaffection with the cinema-going process in general. Of course, Tim Story’s rehash of elements from the past four Shaft films was always going to generate some unhappy customers; the late John Singleton’s 2000 version with Samuel l Jackson was awful, and unfortunately that’s the poisoned well that this 2019 incarnation draws most of it’s mojo from. Jessie T Usher is JJ Shaft, an FBI cyber-crime fighter who joins forces with his dad, and then eventually his grandfather (a spruce Richard Roundtree) to resolve the death of his friend. The gags are laboured, the action undistinguished, the music isn’t the original Shaft theme, and the locations are faked NYC. Roundtree is great, and the final shoot-out is worth the wait, but this version of Shaft feels like something of a con-job all round.

Always Be My Maybe 2019 ****

It’s not a matter for debate; Netflix have brought back the rom-com, even if it’s a slightly different beast on streaming. Always Be My Maybe is pretty much everything that’s required from the genre; two personable leads in Ali Wong and Randall Park, who co-wrote the screenplay with Michael Golamco, plus a well-caught San Francisco vibe, plus a scene-hogging cameo from Keanu Reeves that rocks the film for a couple of extended scenes. Always Be My Maybe is the story of two kids who grow into adults without ever properly evaluating their bond; even when they’re going out with other people, Sasha and Marcus are more able to be themselves when they’re together, and Nahnatchka Khan’s film makes the most of the unrequited confusion. There’s plenty of funny lines including ‘Famous people are different; I once saw Glenn Close eat a pineapple sandwich…’ and an ingenious scene making fun of the fancy food that hipsters eat. Seeing normal people doing relatable things in increasingly rare in cinema; Netflix’s streaming service is well served by appealingly light fare such as Always Be My Maybe.

https://www.netflix.com/gb/title/80202874?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

Murder Mystery 2019 ***

Netflix come up with another ingenuous save from the slush-pile; a rom-com vehicle developed via Charlize Theron and John Madden, probably at some cost, given a quick re-spray to become an Adam Sandler/ Jennifer Aniston tent-pole for the streaming giant.  Presumably the script was inspired by many hoary who-dunnits and husband-wife detective teams as in The Thin Man, and the result plays like something that was old hat in the late 1930’s, yet still works better than most modern structures. Mr and Mrs Spitz (Sandler and Aniston) are taking a vacation when they meet up with a charming viscount (Luke Evans) who invites them to enjoy his family yacht in Monaco. There the Spitz adventure continues when the patriarch (Terence Stamp) is killed before he can change his will, leaving everyone a suspect. The action shifts from the yacht to Monaco and Lake Como,; the exterior filming is lush, the cast, including Gemma Artetron, David Walliams and Ólafur Darri Ólafsson highly recognisable, and despite some groaners, there are real flashes of wit in the deconstruction of mystery conventions. Murder Mystery is one of the better films Netflix have made in terms of satisfying an audience; the worrying thing for the streamer must be that it’s the most ancient wine imaginable poured into the shiniest of new bottles.

https://www.netflix.com/gb/title/80242619?source=35

Russian Doll 2019 *****

Russian-Doll-Season-One-NetflixNatasha Lyonne is well-known from her turn in Orange Is The New Black, but her film career is varied to say the least; the star of American Pie, Yoga Hosers, Scary Movie 2 and Show Dogs would not necessarily be your first port of call for an existentialist drama. As executive producer, creator and writer of Russian Doll, Lyonne deserves a multitude of credit for pushing the boundaries to create a fresh, original and ground-breaking television programme for Netflix. As a Netflix production, the home of the portal, the narrative demands alternate realities a la Maniac or The Good Place, and so Russian Dolls follows Nadia, a young woman with a good-time attitude, an appetite for drink, drugs and men, and a strange predicament by which she keeps dying, and finding herself leaving the bathroom cubicle at her own birthday party over and over again. This scenario sounds a lot like Groundhog Day, but twists neatly in new directions when Nadia meets Alan (Charlie Barnett), a young man whose day begins over and over with him shaving and breaking up with his girlfriend. Russian Doll has layers, as the title might suggest, but it avoids conventions and manages to suggest how reparative patterns in human behaviour might be changed. It’s fast, scabrous, rude, adventurous, and everything that a new TV show should be.

https://www.netflix.com/gb/title/80211627?source=35