The plan for this week's Netflix round-up, initially, was to feature Canadian content. Netflix executives are constantly reminding us that Canadian users actually have access to countless movies and shows that U.S. viewers can't see, and that has a lot to do with the deals the company has signed with Canadian studios.
Things got off to a rough start when I couldn't find two of my favourite Canadian films, Last Night and Les invasions barbares , which seemed like they should be Netflix slam dunks. Then I was unable to get Netflix's user interface to show me more than a handful of its Canadian offerings (and many of those were "Canadian" films only in the sense that they had some tangential relationship to the country). So I'm saving the all-Canadian edition of WI/WO for another week. (Give us your suggestions in the comments.)
Next, I was going to recommend Primer. A few days ago, a friend and I went to watch Looper, and subsequently we got to talking about what the best time-travel movies are. Primer, a low-budget but surprisingly complex and internally consistent flick, quickly came up. Now, I know Primer was on Netflix, because I watched it on Netflix. But yeah, you guessed it, the movie has since evaporated.
Finally, I gave up and picked two unrelated movies.
Before you get to my picks, make sure to go back to last week's instalment and check out our readers' selections, which were much better than mine, both in terms of what to watch (A Prophet) and what not to watch (The Master of Disguise). There's also some new reader picks at the bottom of today's story.
The quintessential Jon Favreau/Vince Vaughn film is, of course, Swingers. Everyone of a certain age and subcultural disposition at one time saw the 1996 indie comedy, loved it, and immediately went out and bought a Big Bad Voodoo Daddy record. Swingers also lives on Canadian Netflix, but it is virtually impossible to recommend.
That's because, in the 16 years since its release, Swingers has been made unwatchable. It has, quite simply, been quoted to death. How many times have you seen some tight-shirted jackass at a bar high-five his friend and yell, "You're so money, baby"? How many frat kids have drunkenly shouted "Vegas, baby, Vegas!" in every airport departure lounge in the world? Swingers has been ruined by the same people who went on to ruin the Rick James skit from Chappelle's Show.
That's why Made is great. Five years after Swingers, Favreau and Vaughn reunite for a mafia comedy that works surprisingly well, even though mafia comedies are usually awful. It's not as good as Swingers, but it's way better than what Swingers has become.
The movie centres on a down-on-his-luck, washed up boxer who's tasked with a fairly benign errand-boy task on behalf of his gangster boss. That task takes him and his lifelong friend to New York, where things quickly go awry.
There are a few reasons why Made shouldn't work. For one thing, the best-laid-plans crime movie trope had been done before. Also, the movie is a comedy, but it isn't a laugh-a-minute kind of comedy. Also also, Puff Daddy is in it, which you'd think would be enough to render most movies unwatchable (excluding Monster's Ball).
Luckily, Vince Vaughn's character, Ricky, saves the whole thing. The sidekick to Favreau's lead, Ricky is one of the more delightfully cocky, just amazingly frustrating characters you'll ever watch. Most of the time, when a movie features an annoying character, it is either inadvertent (Jar Jar Binks), or watered-down to make the character endearing (what Jar Jar Binks was supposed to be, I guess). Not here. Vince Vaughn goes out of his way to make you dislike him, and it works. You spend most of the movie wanting to punch him in the face, and it is actually kind of fun.
A quick check of the web's movie review sites indicates that this might be the lowest-rated film we've ever featured in the positive side of our Netflix round-up, so viewer beware. If you hated Swingers, you'll probably hate this movie. If you loved Swingers, you might still hate this movie.
The Last Airbender
Two questions for you. First, did you know that M. Night Shyamalan wrote the screenplay for the children's movie Stuart Little? And second, now that you know this, doesn't it kind of make you want to watch Stuart Little?
Over the past couple of decades, Mr. Shyamalan has built himself a Greek tragedy of a Hollywood career, mostly by putting together a couple of interesting, there's-a-twist-at-the-end blockbusters, followed by mounds of absolute drivel. As far as the latter category is concerned, The Last Airbender is Mr. Shyamalan's Citizen Kane.
There are only two problems with The Last Airbender: It is impossible to care about anything that's happening, and none of the actors know how to act.
There's a pretty well-defined set of elements common to most fantasy and science fiction movies. Chief among these elements is the rule set. Simply put, the rule set functions as a kind of internal consistency contract with the audience – you tell me in what ways I should suspend disbelief, and I agree to do so. If a movie starts off by making it clear that, in this universe, people can fly, then I'm willing to believe people can fly. But if 10 minutes into the movie, two characters are sitting in a car on the highway, complaining about traffic, I'm going to be pissed off.
The Last Airbender starts off with what seems like a fairly straightforward rule set: there are Benders, who can manipulate one of the four elements (water, air, fire and earth), and the one guy who can manipulate all four elements is called the Avatar. He's also called the Last Airbender, because he's the last person alive who can bend air. Got it? Good.
But from this basic rule set, all hell breaks loose. The viewer is quickly left wondering why the Avatar, played here by the world's least charismatic child, just doesn't kill all the bad guys from the get-go. In fact, it is impossible to watch this movie for any amount of time without running into a swamp of meta-existential questions that all boil down to, "Why is any of this happening?"
Mr. Shyamalan appears to acknowledge this, and as a result, the majority of the dialogue is spent manically plugging the myriad holes in the movie's logic dam. Characters endlessly and urgently drone on about why things are happening, not happening, or about to happen; every scene inevitably comes to a grinding halt as someone has to stop and explain bending minutia; the word "Because" shows up in a lot of the dialogue. Eventually, all of this expositionary pretzeling begins to fall apart. Watching The Last Airbender try to explain itself soon starts to feel like watching an innumerate person attempt to prove Fermat's last theorem.
If all of this wasn't bad enough, the movie also suffers from a complete lack of compelling – or even barely likable – characters. The child actors (and there are many child actors here, including the titular Last Airbender) seem unfamiliar with the concept of facial expressions. The CGI effects are plentiful and overbearing (although the movie does redeem itself slightly by reviving the career of that flying dog Falcor from The Neverending Story). And every few minutes, somebody launches into a semi-philosophical diatribe that sounds like Buddhism as it is understood by the cast of the Jersey Shore. The most honest moment in the whole film comes about halfway through, during a criminally boring fight scene, where one character asks another, "Why are you doing this?"
The Lives of Others is my favourite Netflix flick. It's an incredible movie about the Stasi in East Germany, and in particular, one agent who becomes engaged in the lives of the people he's monitoring.
I watched Sidewalls yesterday, a foreign film set in Buenos Aires. It is a lovely film about two lonely people who would be a perfect couple but haven't yet met. Kind of slow paced, but well acted and written. Perfect for a day in bed while recovering from the flu.
THIS WEEK'S MISSION: Find us some Canadian content! What has Netflix got that comes from the True North Strong and Free (or $8 a month, as the case may be)? Share your tips in the comments.