True North Streaming: The Best New Titles on Netflix Canada, April 17/17
True North Streaming is a semi-regular column highlighting some of the best new additions to Netflix’s Canadian service. Like many of you, every so often I get a pleasant surprise when I discover a cool movie or TV show that’s just popped up on Netflix’s often-maligned sister platform. These posts will help you filter through the often quirky mix of Netflix Canada’s offerings and find the most valuable ways to waste some time.
And with that, in no particular order…
Five Came Back
Ever since Netflix set a goal to have 50% of its library be original content, every week seems to bring fresh titles that are wholly financed by the streaming platform. Just like traditional distribution, there’s going to be just as many flops as hits, but sometimes the hits are real surprises. Take Five Came Back – a three-part documentary series that I didn’t know was even in production until it hit the service. The episodes chart the story of five renowned Hollywood directors – Frank Capra, William Wyler, John Ford, John Huston and George Stevens – who volunteered to serve in the U.S. military in World War II as propaganda filmmakers. The documentary shows how they not only shaped how the average American was interpreting the war, but how the war shaped their lives and their post-war work in Hollywood.
Rather than merely stitch together archival material, Five Came Back stands out by structuring itself around interviews with five contemporary filmmakers who each have a personal admiration for one of the subjects. We hear from Steven Spielberg, Guillermo del Toro, Francis Ford Coppola, Paul Greengrass and Lawrence Kasdan, who offer captivating insights on the impact the five directors had. The series is catnip for any film fan or history buff, and at only 3 episodes, it’s pleasantly easy to complete.
While it’s usually news when an actor makes their first break as a director (with varying results), one who perhaps deserves a little more attention is the Australian actor/writer/director Joel Edgerton. After breaking out as the younger Owen Lars (Luke Skywalker’s uncle) in the Star Wars prequels, Edgerton has recently focused on a series of character-actor parts in titles like Zero Dark Thirty, Black Mass and Midnight Special, while also getting the chance to star in works like this year’s Oscar contender Loving. However, he’s also quietly worked as a screenwriter on a handful of Australian releases, leading him to write, direct and star in a 2015 thriller called The Gift, which just hit Netflix Canada a week or two ago.
The Gift (which currently sits at 93% on RottenTomatoes, out of 164 reviews), was praised as a delightfully twisty mystery. It seems to make the most out of star Jason Bateman’s ability to play a mix of funny, smarmy and creepy, as he portrays a man whose random encounter with an acquaintance from high school (Edgerton) brings a dark past to the fore, threatening the life he’s built with his wife (Rebecca Hall). If The Gift is as good as the critical establishment suggests, we may be seeing more from Edgerton as a director in the future.
Stranger Than Fiction
The most common perception of Will Ferrell is the man-child act he’s best known for, from…well almost every film he’s made in the past 20 years. But sprinkled in his filmography are a few outliers with a different vibe – maybe most notably the 2006 release Stranger Than Fiction. While still technically a comedy, the Marc Forster-helmed movie has a decidedly more melancholy, whimsical tone than any of Ferrell’s other work. Ferrell plays Harold Crick, an IRS auditor who thinks he’s going crazy; he begins hearing a narration in his head that seems to dictate his daily life, and it has his death tragically planned out. As Ferrell’s character tries to unravel what’s happening to him, he runs into a bakery shop owner (Maggie Gyllenhaal) who may be the key to a better life - as long as he can track down whoever is scripting his life before it comes to a crashing halt.
Having seen this one during its original theatrical run, there are still bits that I remember fondly, including the beautifully deadpan “I’m relieved to know that I’m not a golem” scene with Dustin Hoffman (playing a literature professor that Crick consults). Stranger Than Fiction benefits from a strong cast, sharp writing and some quietly stylish visuals, and while it may lean a bit heavily on sentimentality in the third act, the film is a notable detail in Ferrell’s catalogue that more people should catch up with.
Win It All
If you haven’t sampled any of Joe Swanberg’s work yet, 2017 could be the ideal year to jump in. As one of the founders of the so-called “mumblecore” naturalist filmmaking collective, Swanberg’s work is often framed by its frequency - he has 30 directing credits, despite being only 35 years old – and an attraction to improvised scripts and performances. He often creates scenes that look more like outtakes than the expected final product, particularly in recent releases like Happy Christmas and Drinking Buddies. Actors accidentally make each other laugh or mix up the blocking in a scene, and Swanberg avoids re-shooting it – a method that preserves authenticity but risks yanking a viewer out of the experience.
As Swanberg’s career has developed, his work has matured; he’s slowly making a name for himself as part of the next generation of “actor’s directors”. This has netted Swanberg some mainstream opportunities in the 2016 Netflix series Easy, a multi-narrative commentary on modern relationships, and a new Netflix Original movie called Win It All. The latter stars Swanberg regular (and New Girl star) Jake Johnson as a compulsive gambler (and constant loser) who’s entrusted with some dirty money by a criminal associate – which naturally compels Johnson’s character to fritter it away on gambling. If Win It All is anything like Swanberg’s recent work, you can expect a lived-in characterization, confident writing (if indeed there was much of script to begin with), and what may be a star turn from Johnson.
Mad Max: Fury Road
If the moviegoing odds were somehow not in your favour and you missed this masterpiece during its 2015 run, then Netflix Canada has your shot at a comeback. As the fourth (but not necessarily chronological) entry in the Mad Max series, and twenty years after its immediate predecessor, Fury Road roared into theatres and reaffirmed director George Miller as one of the all-time great action filmmakers.
The stunning cinematography and special effects (most of it accomplished without CGI) are just one part of what makes Fury Road a must-watch. The film includes a striking feminist statement, but Miller weaves it in without seeming preachy - equality seems easier to come by in "a world gone mad".
Better Caul Saul – Season 2
Rarely do spin-offs or prequels of anything achieve similar levels of greatness as the thing they’re based on, but Better Call Saul is one of those few projects that does. Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan sussed out that the Saul Goodman character (Bob Odenkirk) he’d created was ripe for further development; just how did this sleazy lawyer get to where he is (inflatable Statue of Liberty and all) when Walter White and Jesse Pinkman happen across him?
As it turns out, Better Call Saul offers a similar arc as Breaking Bad: a mild-mannered guy is slowly corrupted into a criminal out of a sense of desperation, but not before he proves how good he is at surviving – sometimes to a tragic extent. The show is steadily expanding the world of Breaking Bad, giving fans a much better sense of the environment that Walter and Jesse stepped into, and teasing us with cameos by fan-favourite characters who bit the dust in the events of the other show. This blend of fan service and legitimately strong serialized storytelling is an easy recommendation, especially now that Season 3 is airing on AMC.
While I can’t say I’m personally familiar with Outlander, the numbers don’t lie: with two seasons both coming in above 90% on Rotten Tomatoes, its track record looks fairly secure. Everything I’ve heard about the show suggests it’s highly addictive, as it charts the story of a World War II nurse who is thrown backwards in time to 18th century Scotland, where she falls in love with a Highland warrior and is implicated in the Jacobite rebellions.
Critics and viewers praised Outlander (which is based on a series of novels by Diana Gabaldson) as a smartly written and well-cast period drama, with uncommonly progressive gender politics (especially when set against the show it’s often compared to, Game of Thrones). Outlander’s appearance on Netflix Canada is also a result of the show jumping ship from the failed Shomi streaming service, along with a number of other shows like iZombie. With a third season of the show in production, it’s likely that Outlander will be living on Netflix for the foreseeable future.
What did you think of this list of Netflix recommendations? Are there any notable recent uploads on the Canadian service that I missed? Join the discussion in the comments section, and if you liked this post, share it with your friends and followers!