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Kurt Russell might be the best Santa Claus ever in Netflix’s The Christmas Chronicles, a inconsistent but ultimately enjoyable movie that is sure to make it into a lot of holiday-movie rotations for those of us who like Christmas movies with a little edge.

Kate (the adorable Darby Camp) is dealing with the loss of her father, a struggling mom (Kimberly Williams-Paisley) and her jerk brother, Teddy (Judah Lewis), during the holidays. She makes Santa a request video—and then accidentally stumbles upon the big guy himself as he drops by.

Russell is a comic gem here, bemoaning the way cola ads portray him as fat (the guy is in great shape) while embodying the joy and eternally happy spirit of the legend. While the movie drifts a bit in the middle—including some unfortunate, cutesy CGI elves—Russell keeps the whole thing movie forward with the power of his unique and totally new Santa.

The movie is a treat in the end, and Russell takes the big man to all new levels.

The Christmas Chronicles is now streaming on Netflix.

Published in DVDs/Home Viewing

Netflix is becoming a haven for the very best directors. Alfonso Cuaron’s Roma will debut on the streaming service on Dec. 14 after a very brief theatrical run. Martin Scorsese, David Fincher, Paul Greengrass, Guillermo del Toro and Steven Soderbergh all have had, or will have, projects with Netflix.

The true stunner is that Joel and Ethan Coen also teamed up with Netflix for their latest, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs. The film is a six-part Western anthology that fits snugly in their repertoire, which includes No Country for Old Men, Fargo, Barton Fink and Raising Arizona. The movie’s arrival on Netflix, after a one-week theatrical run, establishes Netflix as a true original-film force.

The film opens with a story about the title character (played by Tim Blake Nelson), a singing cowboy who is frighteningly adept with his gun, casually killing many in the segment’s few minutes. The musical ending tells us we are in true Coen territory—where weird, beautiful things can happen.

The other shorts involve an unlucky bank robber (James Franco), a sad and greedy show-runner (Liam Neeson), a wily prospector (Tom Waits), an unfortunate cross-country traveler (Zoe Kazan) and a creepy stagecoach. All of the segments are good enough that they could be expanded into stand-alone films, and all of them successfully convey the overall theme—that the old West was a tricky, dark place.

For any Coen fans concerned that this represents anything less than their usual brilliance because it’s a streaming/TV affair: Fret not. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs will go down as one of the year’s best movies, as their films often do. It’s also a nice companion piece to their other fine Western, their remake of True Grit.

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is now streaming on Netflix.

Published in DVDs/Home Viewing

I binge watched the 10-episode, 10-hour series The Haunting of Hill House in a day on Netflix—and I wanted more.

So, yeah, it’s good.

Based, very loosely, on the Shirley Jackson novel, it tells the story of a family living in a creepy house while the parents (Carla Gugino and Henry Thomas) renovate it for the purpose of flipping it for profit. Things begin to go badly in a haunting kind of way, and events occur that have ramifications throughout the years.

The show covers two time periods, one in which Thomas (who is beyond excellent) plays the young dad, and Timothy Hutton (also excellent) plays him two decades later. The cast is stellar across the board, with the likes of Victoria Pedretti, Oliver Jackson-Cohen and Elizabeth Reaser playing the adult versions of the siblings, and Paxton Singleton, Lulu Wilson and Violet McGraw playing them as children.

There are lots of ghosts in the show, and some of them are truly terrifying, including a tall, levitating ghost that guides himself by tapping a cane on the floor. The show is as much a family drama as a horror show, pulling off both genres efficiently.

The Haunting of Hill House is now streaming on Netflix.

Published in DVDs/Home Viewing

The Kindergarten Teacher stars Maggie Gyllenhaal as, well, a kindergarten teacher who discovers one of her students (Parker Sevak) is quite the poet. She covets the boy’s talent to a point that becomes … well, unhealthy.

The movie, a remake of a French film, gives the talented Gyllenhaal yet another terrific showcase; her teacher is a most complicated character who is guilty of numerous crimes … yet you can’t help but feel for her. Tired of her life, she becomes obsessed with the boy, utilizes his poetry in a bad way, and gets herself in a whole world of trouble. Gyllenhaal pulls off a marvel of a performance, making a despicable person undeniably sympathetic.

This is yet another great offering from Netflix; The Kindergarten Teacher is a theater-caliber movie getting released on the streaming platform with only a limited theatrical release. This is the sort of movie that used to only play art houses; now you can watch it at home the week it’s released.

The Kindergarten Teacher is now streaming on Netflix.

Published in DVDs/Home Viewing

Maniac is yet another Netflix series that plays like a long—but really good—movie.

Jonah Hill and Emma Stone reteam (after Superbad) as two mentally exhausted individuals who volunteer for pharmaceutical experiments that involve a lot more than simply taking pills.

The premise—which allows for their characters to essentially share dreams—places them inside different fantasy scenarios involving different people. Lemurs, Long Island, shootouts, odd dancing, seances, hawks and more play into those scenarios, all directed engagingly by Cary Joji Fukunaga. The different dreams have different styles—but Fukunaga keeps it all under control.

Stone is the true shining star here, especially in a sequence that places her in a Lord of the Rings-type setting, one that her character’s true self can’t really stand. Hill plays his Owen as morose for much of the running time, which is necessary given Owen’s state, but he does get a decent amount of opportunities to go crazy when his character morphs into different people.

Justin Theroux is fantastic as a pathetic doctor, as is Sally Field as his famous mother. In fact, Field has some of the series’ best moments—no surprise, given that she is the legendary Sally Field.

If you are looking to binge, Maniac is a fine choice.

Maniac is currently streaming on Netflix.

Published in DVDs/Home Viewing

Over Labor Day weekend, I binge-watched Ozark, a show about a Chicago family whose financial-expert patriarch, Marty Byrde (Jason Bateman), made the unfortunate decision to launder money for a Mexican drug cartel. He eventually winds up in the Ozarks with his family, where he finds ways to launder more money through the lakeside businesses he gobbles up.

The first season worked just fine. Bateman himself directed a couple of episodes that I found to be generally gripping, and Laura Linney had some great moments as Wendy Byrde, mother and wife. Julia Garner was very good as Ruth, a local looking to ride Marty’s fake wealth into a better life.

As for the just-released second season … I am four episodes in so far, and it stinks.

It’s all about the Byrdes being stuck in the Ozarks and trying to manipulate their various schemes, with the first few episodes trying too hard to explain what happened in Season 1. It’s a show in which it seems like the writers are desperately worried about reminding viewers about all the past details. Hey, let it fly; we’ll figure it out.

The first season focused on criminal activity in the small territory. The second goes into state government and political intrigue as the Byrdes try to build a casino. The dialogue gets dumber and dumber as the show wears on, and it becomes a slog.

I don’t like what I’m seeing. Ruth has become nothing but annoying; Marty and Wendy are just running around over-explaining why they are bad; and Trevor Long’s increased screen time as Ruth’s disgusting dad is unwelcome.

I hope things get better in the final six episodes of Season 2, If they do not, Ozark will have been better off as a limited series rather than a continuing entity. It’s stretching its premise to extremes that are not at all entertaining.

Ozark is currently streaming on Netflix.

Published in DVDs/Home Viewing

Matt Groening, creator of The Simpsons and Futurama, sets his sights on The Lord of the Rings and Game of Thrones with Disenchantment, his latest animated series. While the finished product looks a little rushed on the visual side, there are enough good laughs to make the series a success.

Bean (the voice of Abbi Jacobson) is the restless daughter of King Zog (John DiMaggio). With her assigned demon, Luci (Eric André), at her side, and Elfo the elf (Nat Faxon) as her sidekick, she sets off on a series of adventures.

The humor is part The Simpsons, and part Monty Python (there are actually a lot of “not quite dead” jokes), with more hits than misses. André is a constant laugh-getter as the wisecracking demon, while DiMaggio is very funny as the unorthodox king.

Hopefully, Netflix will straighten out the visuals in future seasons and make this look more like a grown-up cartoon and less of a rush job. As it stands, it’s still better than Game of Thrones. I just don’t understand the appeal of that show.

The first 10-episode season of Disenchantment is currently streaming on Netflix.

Published in DVDs/Home Viewing

Perhaps you noticed that the Jerry Seinfeld program featuring the man interviewing comic guests has moved from Crackle to Netflix—and all of the old episodes are available on Netflix for you to peruse.

What you might not have noticed is Jerry’s deal wasn’t just to run the old shows: A new season of interviews just went up on Netflix, and it’s a healthy bunch.

As of July 6, there are 12 new episodes, including one with Jerry Lewis that was probably the comic legend’s last TV appearance. Others include Dave Chappelle, Ellen DeGeneres, Tracy Morgan, Dana Carvey and Kate McKinnon.

The winner in the new bunch would have to be the episode with Alec Baldwin, who does a hilarious re-enactment of a Broadway role that leaves Seinfeld in stitches. McKinnon is a close second, with her sad impersonation of a dog pooping and her winning rendition of Jessica Lange in American Horror Story (“Knotty pine!”). Actually, her impersonation of a Scottish man ruminating on Massapequa, N.Y. (Seinfeld’s hometown) might be the funniest thing in the new season.

As usual, he gets some pretty nutty cars in which to pick up his stars, including a dune buggy, an ’84 Ferrari and ’77 Toyota Land Cruiser.

Leave it to Seinfeld to take a format that looks lame and turn it into one of the more entertaining things on Netflix. The guy is a master.

Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee is now streaming on Netflix.

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The Bluths are back together again—with more simultaneous screen time than in Season 4—in the latest Arrested Development reunion on Netflix.

The plotting of this season involves a little too much crazy stuff regarding Lucille 2 (Liza Minnelli) and the shared girlfriend (Isla Fisher) of Michael (Jason Bateman) and George Michael (Michael Cera), making things a bit haphazard. That doesn’t stop it from being very funny.

There’s a lot of weirdness at play. Buster (Tony Hale) does jail time (during which he touches a mouse!), while Tobias (David Cross) obsesses with impersonating everybody in the family. Cross remains the funniest guy on this show; he goes full-blown insane this season. Gob (Will Arnett) is dealing with feelings for fellow magician Tony Wonder (Ben Stiller), so he makes a visit to a Closet Conversion facility (which is not what he thinks). Maeby (Alia Shawkat), for reasons I won’t explain, winds up brilliantly impersonating an old Jewish woman in a retirement community.

Even it is a bit frantic, Arrested Development remains one of the funniest shows on TV. (Who knew Henry Winkler was going to be so funny when he grew up?) When it slows down for stuff like a barbecue at Ron Howard’s house (including cameos by Bryce Dallas Howard and the rest of the Howard family), it’s as funny as it ever was.

Netflix currently has eight episodes streaming now, with eight more coming later this year.

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Howard Stern, sporting a silly gray beard in order to give his pal David Letterman a hard time, sits for a terrific interview in the latest installment of Netflix’s My Next Guest Needs No Introduction.

Stern, who got his big television break on Letterman’s show many years ago, is shown in footage from their first meeting together on TV—sporting a terrible mustache and somehow looking older than he does now. The action then skips to present-day, with Letterman sporting that crazy beard and Howard with shades—but without upper-lip hair.

The two talk about broadcasting in general, Howard’s upbringing, and the hazards of celebrity. Stern is his usual self-conscious self, complaining about his looks and worrying he’s ruining Dave’s show. He looks fine, and he’s a great guest.

Of course, they touch upon Donald Trump and his many visits to each of their shows, including Trump’s gross bragging about his own daughter’s hotness. Letterman invites Howard to visit Utah with him, and not surprisingly, Howard declines.

The show—the final episode of the first and possibly only season of My Next Guest—ends with Letterman riding off into the sunset on a horse. Is this the symbolic end to Letterman’s TV days? Gee, I hope not. This show is proof Letterman has plenty left in the tank.

My Next Guest Needs No Introduction With David Letterman is now streaming on Netflix.

Published in DVDs/Home Viewing