Turns out some good stuff has snuck onto Netflix

Turns out some good stuff has snuck onto Netflix

March 1, 2019


Let’s face it: There’s a lot of crap on Netflix. On the level playing field of auto-playing thumbnails, it can be difficult to tell the good stuff from the bad. Netflix doesn’t care if you sink hours into reruns of “The Office” or another mess from Adam Sandler or the best movie of last year. But—perhaps in spite of itself—Netflix has been green-lighting some great stuff lately that isn’t “Big Mouth.” With that in mind, here are some gems you can stream right now!

“High Flying Bird” is Steven Soderbergh’s best in years

Needless to say, Steven Soderbergh is a brilliant director. From his “Oceans” trilogy to “Magic Mike” to getting Adam Driver to say “cauliflower,” the guy has been churning out good stuff for the last 30 years. Back in 2000, he beat himself to win Best Director (no joke). And his latest is not to be overlooked.

With “High Flying Bird,” Soderbergh sets his sights on “the game on top of the game.” In the midst of an NBA lockout, freewheeling agent Ray Burke (Andre Holland) is skating on thin ice: He only gets paid if his athletes get paid, including his latest signee, No. 1 draft pick Erick Scott (Melvin Gregg). The owners—a benevolent and wealthy group personified by Kyle MacLachlan—hold all the cards, unless Ray can find a way to maneuver power back into the hands of the players. Along the way, Soderbergh crosscuts to real NBA players discussing the game—not so much the sport but the challenges of being the face of an organization that sidelines you whenever possible.
The whole movie moves like clockwork. Working from a bulletproof script from “Moonlight” writer Tarell Alvin McCraney, “High Flying Bird” doesn’t waste a moment of its 90-minute runtime. Watching Ray operate is always engaging, and the dialogue cuts and zings through boardrooms, bars and even a stray court. Imagine an Aaron Sorkin project actually punching upwards, and you’ll have some idea why this thing works so well. The performances do the screenplay justice; Holland’s a clear standout, and it’s nice to see Gregg outside his breakout role in the second season of “American Vandal.” Finally, Zazie Beetz shows up as Ray’s former assistant Sam, which (as usual) is a good thing.

Soderbergh just knows how to put these pieces together. His intricate style remains clean, even as he shoots “High Flying Bird” on an iPhone. Like “Tangerine” (another recent flick shot on a smartphone) the degraded image quality is compensated for with an unprecedented unity of theory and practice. Soderbergh understands that this story is about redistributing control into the hands of those who have been denied it, so it only makes sense to see it through a lens almost everyone has in their pockets right now. The game on top of the game indeed. “High Flying Bird” is a slam-dunk—just don’t expect to see one on-screen.

Yes, “Russian Doll” could have been a feature

“Russian Doll” is yet another “television” show that could have been a movie—over eight half-hour installments, this streamlined series tells the complete tale of Nadia (Natasha Lyonne), a woman who keeps dying on the night of her 36th birthday, only to come back to life at the same moment. It’s a more morbid version of “Groundhog Day,” but as time-loop stories go, this is one of the best.

Series creators Lyonne, Leslye Headland and Amy Poehler mine a lot of pathos out of Nadia and those around her, and there’s a good ratio of style to substance. Instead of waking up to an alarm clock blaring Sonny and Cher, Nadia returns to life in a bathroom with an other-worldly feel, a vibe that extends to the whole of “Doll’s” New York City. Finally, Lyonne’s performance helps the show settle into a sardonic rhythm, with a tone that has equal room for comedy and drama (looking at you, “Killing Eve”).

I don’t really want to say more—the less you know going into the show the better. Things conclude on such a satisfying note that I’m not even sure I want to see a second season. Yes, “Russian Doll” could have been edited into a feature film, but there’s something fun about watching it bit-by-bit. Take the plunge—it’s early, but I’d be surprised if this show doesn’t make it on to my “Best of 2019” list come December.

Terrifying and relevant, “Cam” packs layers of meaning  

Finally, there’s “Cam,” a bare-knuckle horror flick. Make no mistake—this is not my genre of choice, but “Cam” joins the ranks of last year’s “Get Out” as another superb, socially-conscious thriller, aiming much higher than a few jump scares. We follow Alice Ackerman (Madeline Brewer), a young woman clawing her way up the ranks of a cam site. In a relatively short time, Alice has attracted a significant following, performing for her unsavory viewers on a sometimes-daily basis.

“Cam” innovates on two levels from the start. First, placing the viewer in the perspective of a sex worker (who we are meant to empathize with) is a bold and unique choice, humanizing a point-of-view rarely (seriously) examined across media today. But the film goes one level deeper: The marketplace Alice works for is structured in the vein of Uber or Airbnb; as Katie Rife of “The AV Club” points out, “It’s a gig economy nightmare as much as a sex industry one.” Alice may be extremely smart and driven, but that doesn’t mean she has control over the system through which she makes her living.

And as “Cam” enters its second act, Alice loses even more control: Locked out of her account, someone appears to be impersonating her own stream. And while the film lacks much of an explanation for its conceit (to a fault), it compensates by treading into accessible thematic territory. There’s a dissonance between our representations of ourselves online and the people we are in person that you don’t have to be a sex worker to experience. It’s the first feature from both director Daniel Goldhaber and writer Isa Mazzei, and the pair construct painful tension as Alice’s incongruent selves crash into one another. “Cam” scares you to your core—comparisons to “Get Out” are high praise, praise “Cam” easily earns.

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