Film & Television

Super Tired of Superheroes?
Netflix Serves Up Several New Originals

This past weekend was a record-breaker for Hollywood. After an enormous promotional push, Avengers: Endgame walked away with a $350-million domestic opening weekend (and $1.2 billion internationally), taking about 90 percent of all U.S. movie ticket sales and setting a new record. (The previous record holders were Avengers: Age of Ultron, with 82.1 percent, and Avengers: Infinity War, with 81.9 percent. Hmmm, do we sense a pattern here?) Chances are, your local multiplex was playing Avengers: Endgame on several of its screens. In some markets, including mine, theatres hosted 59-hour marathons, starting with Ironman last Tuesday, running through another 20 Marvel Universe movies, and culminating in a Thursday night preview of Endgame.

With my box office options limited and four straight days of rain here in the Boston area, I chose to stream some of the new original films and series on Netflix. And, by and large, I’m glad I did.

Netflix and streaming competitors Amazon Prime and Hulu have evolved much the way cable television did in the 1980s. They began as the on-demand equivalent of video stores — they provided in-home access to movies and television series produced by others. Today, however, just as HBO is known for its original series like The Sopranos, Sex and the City, and Game of Thrones, Netflix and the like are producing their own programs. In fact, after a fractious debate that included Steven Spielberg, Helen Mirren, and the Department of Justice, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences just announced that they will continue to allow Netflix-produced features to enter the Oscars race as long as they run in a cinema for a minimum of seven days, with a minimum of three screenings per day.

So, the stakes are high in terms of quality and innovation. The streaming services have also provided opportunities for writers, directors, and actors who are often overlooked by mainstream Hollywood. Several of Netflix’s current offerings are by, for, and with women. Here are a number of its newer choices you may want to dip into (or go ahead and binge).

Brené Brown: The Call to Courage

If you appreciate TED Talks, you’ll enjoy this feature-length version by Dr. Brené Brown, a professor, researcher, and the author of five New York Times bestsellers. Her thesis is that in order to behave with courage (and consequently live a wholehearted life), we have to give ourselves permission to be vulnerable. She’s an engaging and articulate speaker, weaving together data accumulated over decades of research with her own family’s (sometimes humorous, sometimes bittersweet) stories. She makes a compelling case for “showing up,” even when you can’t be sure of your success. As she explains, using a swim meet as metaphor, “Sometimes winning is not coming in first. Sometimes winning is doing the really brave thing. Maybe winning, for you, is just coming off the block and getting wet.”

Homecoming: A Film by Beyoncé

Beyoncé’s performance at Coachella 2018 was by all accounts the highlight of the event, causing DJ Khaled to announce midstream that from then on Coachella would be known as “Beychella.” Homecoming is essentially a concert documentary, chronicling Bey’s performance. In fact, it’s been described as one of the greatest concert films of all time by The Washington Post, The Hollywood Reporter, and the Chicago Sun-Times, among others. And The New York Times called her “the hardest-working person in show business.” In addition to her unforgettable performance, Homecoming pays homage to the black experience, blending allusions to African American history while celebrating Beyoncé’s triumph as the first black woman to headline Coachella.

Juanita

The radiant Alfre Woodard stars as a woman who is fed up — with her needy (unemployed) grown children, her dreary job at a nursing home, her non-existent love life. (She does have an active fantasy life, involving actor Blair Underwood, playing himself, but even that goes awry.) She finally stands up for herself by up and leaving, taking a Greyhound from Ohio to Montana. Although her goal is to be by herself, she meets a colorful cast of characters, forging unlikely new friendships and finding herself not by being alone but by supporting and being supported by a new community. Based on the novel Dancing on the Edge of the Roof by Sheila Williams, Juanita is directed by Clark Johnson with screenplay by Roderick M. Spencer.

Most Beautiful Thing

A visually stunning period drama, set in 1950s Brazil, Coisa Mais Linda (Most Beautiful Thing) tells the story of Malu, a young wife from a wealthy family in São Paulo, whose husband has left to open a restaurant in Rio de Janeiro. When Malu flies to join him there, she discovers that the restaurant is in a shambles, that her husband has left with another woman, and that he’s drained her bank account. At first, she plans to return to her father, but with the help of a group of new friends (and a new love interest), decides instead to stay in Rio and open the restaurant herself as a bossa nova nightclub. The series is available on Netflix dubbed in English, but I found the original Portuguese soundtrack combined with English subtitles more enjoyable.

Russian Doll

This new series is strange and completely addictive; it’s a bit like the 1993 comedy Groundhog Day, but laced with cocaine and profanity. Natasha Lyonne, who created the series with Amy Poehler and Leslye Headland, stars as Nadia, a sarcastic urban software programmer who is turning 36 — again and again and again. She keeps dying (hit by a car, drowning, falling down a flight of stairs) and immediately finds herself back at her own birthday party. Her situation changes when she meets another person who’s caught in his own loop. The writing is crisp and smart and appropriately profane. Lyonne, best known for her outstanding work in Orange is the New Black, is a unique breed of anti-hero heroine, for whom, despite her monumentally bad attitude, you can’t help but root.

Someone Great

Another project with women at the helm, original movie Someone Great is written and directed by Jennifer Kaytin Robinson. It stars Gina Rodriguez (Golden Globe winner for Jane the Virgin), DeWanda Wise (TV’s She’s Gotta Have It), and Brittany Snow (Pitch Perfects I, II, and III) as young professionals and long-time friends at a crossroads between youth and adulthood. Rodriguez has been offered her dream job but must relocate from New York to San Francisco, a trek her boyfriend doesn’t plan to take. Wise is unable to say the L-word to her lover, while Snow is stuck with an overly demonstrative beau, whom she’s grown to hate. Although parts of the movie may make you happy not to be a twenty-something anymore, the firm friendship between the three girls is believable and refreshing.

Unicorn Store

This rather wacky and whimsical modern-day fairy story marks the directorial debut of Oscar-winner Brie Larson (Room). With a screenplay by Samantha McIntyre, Unicorn Store tells the story of disenchanted artist Kit, who moves back in with her parents after a disastrous art show. She takes a temporary (but soul-draining) office job until she receives a mysterious invitation to visit “The Store,” where she can find what she needs. There, she is offered a real unicorn, provided that she creates a life and home worthy of one. This sets her off on a creative journey that proves even more rewarding than the promised mystical beast. The fine cast also includes Samuel L. Jackson, Joan Cusack, and Bradley Whitford.

All of these titles are available now on Netflix, which is currently promoting a 30-day free trial offer. Visit netflix.com for details.

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  • bev May 21, 2019 at 8:22 am

    Just when I thought I might cancel my Netflix subscription, here’s something to make me watch TV again! Thanks 🙂

    Reply