DownStream – Netflix and Shill, Part 1

Last year was a tremendous boon for Netflix when it came to the Oscar stage. The success of Roma (as well as The Ballad of Buster Scruggs to a lesser extent, not to mention a slew of documentaries over the years), followed by the Academy’s rebuke of traditionalists like Steven Spielberg emboldened the world’s premiere streaming service into acting as an equal player in the prestige game, to say nothing of content creation in general.

As such, the company has adopted a very aggressive distribution schedule in the latter half of 2019 in order to capitalize on the moment and make a major play for next year’s Academy Awards. In addition to three entries for Animated Feature (distributing I Lost My Body and Pachamama as well as having Klaus as its first official original animated film) and their usual stable of docs, Netflix is focusing hard on six films for Awards Season. Over the last two and half months, the films have had staggered releases in Los Angeles theatres in order to get their Academy eligibility squared away, before releasing them on the platform after a delay of about four weeks.

Two of the next three editions of “DownStream” will center on these six films (with a documentary update in between before the Oscar shortlists come out next Monday). As always, I’ll break down what I can, and offer mini reviews. As Netflix is campaigning hard for these half dozen, I’ll also briefly opine on their respective Oscar chances.

The King

Loosely based on Shakespeare’s plays about Kings Henry IV and Henry V, the film follows Timothée as a young Hal ascending England’s throne and eventually invading France. The film doesn’t use any of the dialogue from the plays, only the general mood and sequence of events. Joel Edgerton plays a less bumbling, more cunning Falstaff, who has the bulk of the glory moments until the third act. At that point, the spotlight is eternally stolen by Robert Pattinson as the Dauphin of France, a provocateur and braggadocios dandy who absolutely delights at mocking Hal for his lack of decisiveness and maturity. Other supporting roles include Ben Mendelsohn as Henry IV, Sean Harris as William Gascoigne, Thomasin McKenzie as Hal’s sister Phillippa, and Lily-Rose Depp as Princess Catherine.

For the most part, the film is enjoyable, if a bit dull. Chalamet is one of the best young actors out there, but he largely just broods for two hours. The most significant change in his character is graduating from his Finn Wolfhard-style haircut to a more “regal” bowl cut after his coronation. He’s the black sheep of the royal household (as evidenced by him always wearing black before becoming king), but there’s no flair to his uncouth behavior. For all the talk of him being a drunken lout and a whoremonger, the most we really see of anything is him hungover in his bed as Falstaff escorts his latest conquest from the room the morning after. Now, we do get a graphic beheading later on, but the sex stuff? Gotta keep that shit PG.

The heavy lifting is really done by Edgerton and Pattinson, and both are delights in their respective roles. It’s just a shame that they have to basically do everything around a central character who doesn’t really get to do anything except react. Chalamet is a tremendous actor, but this role decidedly did not give him a chance to shine.

As for the Oscar prospects, we have a little bit of evidence to start. Last week the Australian Academy had their ceremony, and the film got 13 nominations, taking home wins for Supporting Actor (Edgerton, beating out Mendelsohn), Cinematography, Production Design, and Costume Design. For our purposes, assume Costume Design is a given, at least for a nomination. It’s a period piece, and those are almost always automatic. Beyond that, I’m not sure, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it picked up a tech or two.

Grade: B-

The Irishman

If there’s one film in this set that’s perfect for the Netflix platform, it’s this one, if nothing else than the fact that it’s three and a half hours long. Gotta take a piss break sometime, right? Based on Charles Brandt’s 2004 novel, “I Heard You Paint Houses,” this mobster masterpiece is just the latest magnum opus from Martin Scorsese, who can basically do no wrong (save a Rolex ad here and there). He’s our greatest living director, and once again he brings a huge ensemble together to tell an epic tale of organized crime and betrayal.

Anchored by Robert De Niro (who I wouldn’t really say could pass for Irish, but the film’s set in Philadelphia, so the accents between those of Italian and Irish ancestry are basically the same), the film offers a fascinating – if fictionalized – account of a mob member named Frank Sheeran who was recruited by the local crime family (headed by Harvey Keitel and Joe Pesci, in his finest role since Goodfellas), initially as an enforcer before becoming a trusted hitman and high-ranking member of the outfit. Beginning the film with a long, uncut shot of the hallways of a nursing home, the now elderly Sheeran, the last alive of his compatriots, tells his life story to an unseen (until the end) listener, from his first encounter with Russell Bufalino (Pesci), to his work with mob sources within his labor union (Ray Romano), and eventually becoming a right hand to Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino at his “dial the intensity up to 11” best). All the while, his family slips further and further away from him, to the point that his daughter Peggy (Anna Paquin) no longer speaks to him.

A true auteur like no one else in the realm of crime drama, Scorsese hits just the right beats over the course of this marathon of a film, that really only starts to drag in the last half hour, and only then because we get into Lord of the Rings territory concerning how many ending points the film could have chosen over the one that was settled on. But the ride to get there is endlessly compelling and intriguing. The dynamic between De Niro and Pesci is as strong as it’s ever been, and seeing him reunite with Pacino on screen, and this time for quite an extended period of time, is a breath of fresh air. Apart from the stellar acting, Scorsese adds some nice touches, like chyron text of the fates of just about every minor mobster encountered, so that you don’t go dancing in your seat waiting for a novel’s worth of epilogues during the credits. You learn right up front when some wise guy died and from what causes, dispensing with that suspense so that you can focus on the moment at hand. It’s a simple touch, played almost like a running gag, but it’s an inspired bit of editorial maturity. There’s not a false note to be had, and every moment, from the grandiose displays of power to the mundane gangland executions, carries tremendous weight, which the cast handles with the most deft of touches.

Also worth noting is the visual effects, specifically when it comes to the actors’ faces. I’ve gone on record as saying I am not a fan of de-aging CGI effects. They’ve led to some horrifying Uncanny Valley moments, most recently with the likes of Will Smith and Jeff Bridges. However, I have to say, here it really works. De Niro, Pacino, Pesci, they all look very natural, no matter where in the timeline their character is at a given moment. Not once did I ever question what I was seeing. I still prefer practical makeup effects, but if this is the direction we’re going, I’m all for it if they keep it at this quality. The Irishman is one of the 20 films vying for the Best Visual Effects Oscar, and this alone makes for a strong case.

This is a surefire contender for Best Picture right now. The film has already been named to several critics’ top 10 lists, and even the likes of Guillermo del Toro have compared the film favorably to other slow burn character-driven epics like Barry Lyndon. It’s also been named the best film of the year by the New York Film Critics’ Association and the National Board of Review. Netflix fell short of the ultimate prize with Roma, but there’s a very strong chance it can clean up with this one, and deservedly so.

Grade: A

The Laundromat

Remember The Big Short, which exposed financial corruption through multiple humorous vignettes and fourth wall breaks? Well, get ready for a heaping dose of the same gimmick, but way less fun. Directed by Steven Soderbergh and based on Jake Bernstein’s book “Secrecy World,” the film exists as a loosely connected series of small stories dealing with corrupt financial practices and shell corporations that sometimes reaches for poignancy and humor, but ultimately falls flat and devolves into political pandering.

The opening of the film is promising enough, with corporate lawyers Jürgen Mossack (Gary Oldman) and Ramón Fonseca (Antonio Banderas) walking through a comically long unbroken shot and explaining the need for money and capitalism in general, as they casually give cavemen fire only to kick it away and then waltz into a club party for elites.

It’s then that the story gets underway, via a series of “secret” scenes, the lessons in how to make wealth self-perpetuate, regardless of who it hurts. Primarily, the victim here is Ellen Martin (Meryl Streep), who loses her husband Joe (James Cromwell) in a Lake George pleasure cruise accident. Seeking a settlement from the tour group’s insurance company, everyone involved ends up swindled, as the insurance policy is owned by three different shell companies in Nevis, none of which actually exist with real funds, leaving the owners (David Schwimmer and Robert Patrick) holding the bag for a worthless insurance policy, and all the victims’ survivors left with no money, thanks to wealthier foreign influences looking to dodge taxes.

All of this tangentially ties in to other stories of malfeasance, including an African immigrant billionaire (Nonso Anozie) bribing his daughter with bearer shares of his company in exchange for not revealing an affair, only to drain the accounts before handing them over; a British businessman (Matthias Schoenaerts) extorting a Chinese government official’s wife (Rosalind Chao); and a shell operator in the Caribbean (Jeffrey Wright) being arrested for embezzlement and hiding a secret second family from his American one. Throughout these stories, Mossack and Fonseca break into the scenes as a means of explaining how financial laws heavily benefit the rich, and how all of these crimes can’t possibly be their fault. That is, of course, until the leaking of the “Panama Papers” in 2016.

There are some good moments here, and Soderbergh’s strengths behind the camera are put to the best of uses, but still, the film comes up short in a lot of important areas. First and foremost, I know he’s playing a German character, but who thought it was a good idea for Gary Oldman to do an impression of Werner Herzog for this role? Second, if you’re going to do another comedic take on massive malfeasance, you really do need the comedy chops that Steve Carrell, Christian Bale, and the whole cast brought to The Big Short, and really, it’s just not here. There are a couple of funny bits, but for the most part, it’s all just an exaggerated exercise in futility by pointing out the actual futility in seeking economic justice in this world.

Third (mild spoiler I guess, but since this is all based on actual events, it’s not really), the film ends on line readings from the John Doe report that accompanied the leak. As Streep herself slowly removes her costume and reads the lines, the whole thing just reeks of political grandstanding, and given the Academy’s penchant for nominating Streep for merely existing, it almost feels like self-parody, as if she’s chewing scenery to dare the Academy to nominate her for this. It’s meant to come off as some grand coda to the overall thesis, but it just plays like liberal elites criticizing conservative elites for being the wrong kind of elite. Rarely am I on the side of conservative critics, but this time, I think they’re on to something. Don’t just bitch about the problem, do something about it. Otherwise, what’s the point? All the people who made this film are independently wealthy in their own right, and can actually put some of their money to use to help solve the problem or at least compensate the victims, so put up or shut up.

As for the Oscars, I think I can safely assume that this will be the one of The Netflix Six that is completely ignored. Again, Meryl Streep might get a nomination because it’s practically in the Academy bylaws at this point, but she’s done way better than this, and honestly, there are so many better leading and supporting performances from women this year that it would be a disservice to knock one of them off just to pander to the queen.

Unless that one you knock off is Jennifer Lopez. I’m totally fine with that.

Grade: B-

That’s it for this set. Three films remain, one of which is still in theatres and won’t be on the platform until the 20th. I could see it now, but I made that mistake with The King and I Lost My Body. The name of this blog is “I Actually Paid to See This,” but when it comes to Netflix, I’ve already paid with my subscription. I don’t need to shell out more money just to sit in a comfy chair.

Join the conversation in the comments below! Have you seen these six movies, and if so, which is your favorite? Which do you think deserves the most love from the Academy? Do you imagine yourself having palpitations every time you hear the Netflix “don-DONG” sound, or is that just me? Let me know!

8 thoughts on “DownStream – Netflix and Shill, Part 1

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