An Ongoing Binge: 18 Netflix Original Movies

As a lover of lists, I enjoy setting parameters and seeing if they can be met. What’s even better is creating a system based on simple rules that really pans out. For example, this movie wheel my wife and I hashed out one Sunday morning and then proceeded to binge:


This last week, I decided to give Netflix’s Original Movies a fair shake. It’s fairly obvious to everyone Netflix’s great strength is streaming shows. It’s attempting to corner the stand-up comedy special market, which is good more times than not but has a slew of duds. Recently, its documentary movies have been top-notch. I’m thinking of Casting JonBenet and Rodney King

I’m not yet sold on it providing legit film, but I love the fact the films it’s featuring aren’t utter trash like those produced by other networks. But I rather enjoyed even the duds Netflix has to offer.

The rules are simple–original features released in 2017 excluding documentaries, series, and foreign films. There is always something to enjoy in bad movies and something to dislike in good ones. My ultimate judgment on each of these movies comes down to if the film was actually well-made and enjoyable (one objective, the other subjective). Overall, these Netflix Original Movies are a mixed bag. When Netflix is good, it’s very good but most of its films fall into the middling range with honestly very few truly bad movies.



Science fiction
January 27, 2017
1 hour, 30 min.

First thought: Pretty solid, fun & just clever enough with a great performance by Maisie Williams.

The premise of this feels a bit hackneyed, cellphone debris lodged in the protagonist’s head give him the ability to eventually mentally access all things digital. However, that pitch isn’t overly tuned up like as say an episode of Black Mirror. The skill is discreetly discovered, learned, and mastered in a standard superhero manner which I think was well done. This may be due to the fact that the source material is Kevin Brooks’ novel of the same name.

Lead Bill Milner, the eponymous iBoy, becomes a vigilante to enact revenge on the gang that injured him and raped his would-be girlfriend Lucy, Maisie Williams. I was happy with the use of special effects as the story is more of a straight-forward superhero tale. What stood out is just how good of an actor Williams is bringing a deft weight to her role. In fact, she gently rolls away from the damsel or victim trope through her portrayal. Without her, this would have fallen flat.


Take the 10

January 20, 2017
1 hour, 20 min.

First thought: Exceptionally poor.

A buddy comedy in the vein of Superbad but one lacking any style, quirk, or genuine humor. One of those 80 minute movies that feels like 200. There are a handful of cameos that are just wasted, specifically, Andy Samberg, the leads are dreadfully unfunny and mired in motivational incoherence. The only member of the cast who actually acts is Stella Maeve in her all too short scenes. Take the 10 doesn’t reach the level of forgettable, b-list 90s teen movies.

Girlfriend’s Day

February 14, 2017
1 hour, 10 min.

First thought: Somewhat disjointed, I still enjoyed this quasi-noir flick. Kinda reminded me of The Long Goodbye.

A dark comedy that sends up the LA noir genre by making our hero less a detective or even a down-and-out writer but more a sentimental master of the greeting card. Bob Odenkirk (Mr. Show, Breaking Bad, and Better Call Saul) is flawless in this role, able to play it with gravitas without sacrificing any humor. He’s marvelously paired opposite Amber Tamblyn as the story takes its bizarre Chinatown-esque turns. The movie is successful because it’s quick, punchy.



April 21, 2017 
1 hour, 23 min.

First thought: Gritty, believable, patient, & surprisingly tender, Tramps was a decent flick.

The jewel in this film is co-lead Grace Van Patten, who plays Ellie. Ellie lives a vagabond’s life mired in petty crime and homelessness. She is the most world-weary of the film’s pair with Callum Turner’s Danny being the good son of an immigrant family that is itself barely keeping its head above water. In fact, Danny’s family is slowly circling the drain into the kind of life Ellie is hoping to break free of. 

Writer/Director Adam Leon puts together a film that is romantic without being a romance. More than anything, it’s about two people finding a kindred spirit in the other and wanting that person to start a new life as much or more than they want that for themselves. Visually, the film is straightforward and, at times, deceptively simple. This is probably the most ‘indie’ film on Netflix’s roster and definitely the most earnest. With a simple plot, it allows its actors to revel in character study and ultimately succeeds.


Coin Heist

January 6, 2017
1 hour, 37 min.

First thought: Tiresome with very very low stakes, no humor, & too much melodrama.

Based on the YA novel of the same name by Elisa Ludwig, this ostensible crime drama or heist flick is not so much poorly done as just profoundly dull. Emily Hagins (writer/director) has taken the source material and made a believable teen movie, albeit one that is paint by numbers. These wealthy prep school kids decide not to so much rob a US Mint but to press a flawed coin, make an unsanctioned run, and then sell those coins to collectors so as to save their prep academy from insolvency. It is a stretch but no more than your usual heist movies are. However, what could have been a quirky send up exploring the genuine emotions of characters in their late teens quickly becomes coloring paper dolls with cliche. I will say that for as young as Hagins is, this film is pragmatically accomplished and with a better script/source material she could make some very pleasing films in the future.


Win It All

April 7, 2017 
1 hour, 28 min.

First Thought: Jake Johnson keeps making the same movie & it’s always subpar & far far less charming than he believes himself to be. A gross mediocrity.

A gambling addict pisses away the money in a go-bag he’s tasked with babysitting while its owner does a brief stint in prison. This should be a film that not only shows us self-destructive decision making and its consequences but ought to provoke tension in viewers as we wonder and hope if Eddie, played by Jake Johnson, can get his shit together while managing to payback the money he’s stolen. The failure of this story is that at no point do we feel any urgency nor is there any moment when we feel any sympathy or empathy for Eddie. Eddie isn’t a loveable loser; he’s a piece of shit. The film never deals with any consequences and leaves viewers with the suggestion that being a piece of shit is no big deal because no one really got hurt. This is film-making?

I am always astounded that people find Jake Johnson tolerable. The dude-bro nature of his films always lack emotional content, floating on the surface giving the illusion of meaning and depth. The myth of his charm is also confounding. In Win It All we see very good performances from Keegan-Michael Key and especially Joe Lo Truglio, however Johnson flips his autopilot switch coasting through each and every scene on the aforementioned fictions that make him the working actor he is today. Johnson is the kind of guy that every straight white guy with a beard imagines themselves to be, and we are only a few steps away from him and James Franco making action films together to the detriment of us all.


Small Crimes

Dark Comedy 
April 28, 2017 
1 hour, 35 min.

First Thought: A bunch of actors looking for a plot.

I think like a lot of people, I wanted this movie to be better than it was. I think I was hoping for something gritty along the lines of Viggo Mortensen’s The End of Violence or Eastern Promises. Instead, we got Nikolaj Coster-Waldau (forever a Lannister in our minds) as Joe Denton, a kind of stunted white trash corrupt cop cum ex-con, flailing about without the least capacity to understand or engage with what’s going on around him. Small Crimes isn’t confusing but it is baffling in its execution. 

Released from prison after slicing up a District Attorney, Joe arrives back in the in the town where everyone knows his name to try and rebuild his life. However, he’s quickly strong-armed by another corrupt cop to this time kill the crime boss under whose orders Joe had originally acted upon, gone to jail, and been protected by. The tension is Joe’s resistance to the task set before him. This is understandable for he’s afraid to return to prison unprotected and wants to rebuild his relationship with this two daughters. What isn’t understandable is just how ham-fisted Joe is at avoiding then complying. For an ex-cop, Joe is an imbecile, a blunt weapon. As such, the emotional depth we get is no deeper than a paper plate. Too much is obscured that would have otherwise given viewers a modicum of investment in this story. This is especially true of Joe’s relationship with his father (Robert Forster) and the pseudo-love interest Charlotte Boyd (Molly Parker). Both of these characters are given short shrift while being exquisitely played with mournful intensity. Small Crimes simply fails to deliver on any of the stakes its genre or the film itself sets up.


War Machine

War Comedy 
May 26, 2017 
2 hours, 2 min.

First thought: Sloppy, simple, & sappy, a terrible flick.

I enjoy war films. Not in a WWII Baby Boomer fetish kind of way, but as a very visceral and real means to tell extremely haunting stories. Coming at War Machine from this angle, I was vastly disappointed. 

Brad Pitt plays a fictionalized version of former four-star general Stanley McChrystal based on Michael Hastings book The Operators: The Wild and Terrifying Inside Story of America’s War in Afghanistan. But this movie isn’t a piece of creative nonfiction or glossy biography, although it certainly does present itself like it. War Machine tries to coax viewers into experiencing it as the invocation of real life events but one can’t help but feel every scene is an unintentional caricature. It’s as if a Presidential portrait is done in crayon. There is no irony in this film, yet it also lacks any redeeming earnestness or even slight humor. 

Most of the issues with the film come down to poor composition decisions. To begin with, more than half the film is told through voice over however we don’t meet the character giving voice to the narrative until more than halfway through leaving us to wonder, how exactly was any of what I just saw known? Given the film’s two plus hour run time, this is painfully unacceptable. Then there’s the simple fact that Brad Pitt is still too young and too Hollywood pretty to play a general in the vein of McChrystal. There is but one scene where Pitt captures the character (telling off a subordinate who dares to rearrange the seating at a dinner in the general’s honor). The only saving moment in this film is the all too brief cameo by Tilda Swinton as a foreign journalist. But there are no hard truths explored in this film and by its end we get a self-satisfied bit of neo-liberal journalism moralizing–something always written with 20/20 hindsight.


Shimmer Lake

June 9, 2017
1 hour, 26 min.

First Thought: A simple narrative gimmick that in no way detracts from quality performances, well done.

Screenwriter Oren Uziel’s directorial debut is rather surprising. For someone who cut his teeth writing the Mortal Kombat movies and 22 Jump Street, the dark comedy thriller Shimmer Lake is an order of magnitude better than anything we ought to have expected. 

The gimmick is simple, the story is told backwards, and scenes are single day devolving a week back to the scene of the crime (a bank robbery and subsequent manhunt). Yet this device doesn’t distract from the storytelling nor does it confuse, rather it generates legitimate tension as viewers are actively piecing together (and enjoying) the events alongside the characters. Nothing about the story is original, we’ve all seen this kind of genre before so it is incumbent upon Uziel to give us strong characters that the actors can flesh out in a compelling manner. This is exactly what happens. Rob Corddry and Ron Livingston are pitch perfect as hapless FBI agents. Adam Pally performs perhaps the best comedic deputy role since the Dukes of Hazzard‘s Enos Strate, and Rainn Wilson of The Office fame is excellent as the desperate, dickish man on the run. Yet the whole of the film is held together through the deadpan performance of Benjamin Walker as Sheriff Zeke Sikes. Uziel’s direction is no frills but he has an excellent sense of pacing and framing allowing viewers to let themselves become awash in what they are experiencing.


Sandy Wexler

April 14, 2017
2 hours, 11 min.

First Thought: 2 awful hours of painfully unfunny gags.

The less said about this trainwreck the better. Sandler has somehow convinced Netflix to give him carte blanche to continue making absolutely dreadful, sophomoric films. There is no comedian who has grown less than Sandler. His doubling down on trite gags, hackneyed premises, and embarrassingly shitty characterizations is at best mind-numbing and at worst soul-crushing. But at least this film goes on for two plus hours. Sandler is the Michael Bay of comedy.

The film muddles its way along turning from a tribute to a character to a ham-fisted rags-to-riches story. The opening wasn’t unfunny. The parade of genuinely funny celebrities (as well as more than a few garbage has-beens like Sandler himself) discussing the eponymous hero in a sort of documentary-style manner intercut with Sandler as Sandy Wexler embodying the ridiculousness described could have been enough. If the movie has stuck to this formula to tell a condensed version of its story keeping to no more than an hour in length, then this could have worked. However, it doesn’t and fails miserably. In doing so, Sandler has smeared the career of Jennifer Hudson.


The Most Hated Woman in America

March 24, 2017 
1 hour, 32 min.

First Thought: A rather unimpressive bio pic that plodded along with no real performances of note.

As a true-crime biopic, one expects a certain formulaic monotony, checking boxes if you will, but what no viewer expects or deserves is story with no interest in capturing the audience’s attention. The Most Hated Woman in America fails because it never gives us a real reason to like or loathe Melissa Leo’s portrayal of Madalyn Murray O’Hair, founder of the American Atheists. This movie is set at the heart of the culture wars of the 70s, 80s, and 90s, yet what we get of that is maddeningly incoherent and incomplete. Writer/Director Tommy O’Haver ought to have given us the duplicity of the religious right and the amoral left by focusing the story on the tour O’Hair and Reverend Bob Harrington (portrayed dazzlingly by Peter Fonda) undertook to swindle the populace by preying on their indignation. That movie would have been worth seeing, this one not so much.



May 5, 2017 
1 hour, 21 min.

First Thought: I could see folks who enjoyed Wet Hot American Summer or Spoils of Babylon tolerating this.

Not quite a parody/spoof or satire, but loaded with rather good jokes and amusing repartee, Handsome is detective movie that revels in its titular gumshoe. Jeff Garlin, Detective Gene Handsome, is an underrated and underappreciated actor who has rather superb comedic timing, great deadpan delivery, and an endearing way of making you love the humor that he loves. In writing and directing this flick, Garlin goes to his strengths both performing and in telling his story. In its strongest moments, Handsome succeeds when Garlin is at his best embodying these traits. Unfortunately, a whole movie of this is not sustainable and while Garlin is surrounded by adept players most especially Natasha Lyonne as Handsome’s partner Detective Fleur Scozzari, there’s not enough to bring it above something casually funny–you don’t laugh watching this, you smile slightly. The most annoying aspect is that it feels as though some of the cast are doing impersonations of other actors. Specifically, Steven Weber seems to be doing a role meant for Alan Tudyk. Yet Garlin has this ability to make small, cute movies like Dealing with Idiots and I Want Someone to Eat Cheese With that genuinely charm viewers, and there ought to be a place for such films…like on Netflix.



January 13, 2017 
1 hour, 44 min.

First Thought: Aggressively dull.

There is nothing new or interesting about this thriller. In fact, this movie fails to thrill or even tick up one’s heartbeat with jump scares. Premise isn’t convoluted but does its damnedest to feel like it–a psychiatrist suffers a violent attack and has to piece together not just her life but her memory. If this had been a paint-by-numbers slasher flick it would have been more satisfying. Instead, we are presented with a psychological thriller of a psychologist that flops miserably. But at least there’s needless violence and mutilation with no real payoff–if that’s your thing then feel free to waste nearly two hours.


Burning Sands

March 10, 2017 
1 hour, 42 min.

First Thought: Difficult for me to watch given my hatred for frats but a good flick. Like Juice good.

College movies are difficult because university life is such a bubble. It’s always wrong to say there’s college and then there’s the ‘real’ world, but the day-to-day experience of collegiate life has a wholly different set of banalities, rituals, and codes of conduct. One thing that exists across all college experiences is the bizarre fetish of Greek life. Burning Sands is set in a HBC but could just as easily be a scenario at any state college or private university. However, there are some unique glimpses into navigating life at a HBC should one insist on living a fraternal existence.

I loathe fraternities. They are cabals of willful stupidity, needless aggression, sexual predation, and cultivate a bully culture whether fraternity or sorority. Greek life is a cancer. This movie shows viewers exactly this, yet it feels rather unoriginal because for all the hazing-gone-too far imagery, there is little to no moralizing or even motivational reveal. Without this, viewers are left adrift unable to securely answer the question, “What is the filmmaker trying to convey?” Most will come away with the glorious unsatisfying “this kind of thing happens, has always happened, and will always happen” which, to my mind, is a shirking of responsibility by Director and co-Writer Gerard McMurray. However, McMurray has made a solid film drawing out a very good performance from the lead Trevor Jackson.


The Discovery

Science Fiction 
March 31, 2017 
1 hour, 42 min.

First Thought: Had promise but kinda wasted it. Imagine the movie Primer but with a budget.

All sci-fi revolves not around the originality of its premise but its execution. This film gives us a legitimately interesting springboard–there is definitive proof of a life after death, a different plane of existence. Millions upon millions begin committing suicide to get to this new plane. However, no one has taken the time to ask or find out if this new plane of existence is worth going to. This is the tension that builds the bonds or lack thereof between Jason Segel’s character Will, his brother Toby (Jesse Plemons), and Dr. Thomas Harbor (Robert Redford), the discoverer of ‘the discovery.’

There is an aspect of cult religiosity as Dr. Harbor builds an island compound meant to help those who have had loved ones commit suicide. Will sees the danger and conflict but can’t resist the urge to explore with his father the work being done to find out more about this other plane. Concurrently, an enigmatic woman, Isla played by Rooney Mara, lurks alongside Will both prodding him forward and pulling him back.

Over all this film was bleak, a humorless, overbearing trudge of a story. It’s never clear if this film wants to be an existential sci-fi exploration of humanity, a thriller about a cult, or a depressive’s quirky romance. There are moments that work however and the performances are accomplished. It’s just no there there.


Deidra & Laney Rob A Train

March 17, 2017 
1 hour, 34 min.

First Thought: Not just a good teen movie, a good family flick.

There is something wonderfully charming about this movie that is equal parts heist, sister bonding, and family survival. Ashleigh Murray plays older sister Deidra who is forced to take control of her working poor family as she desperately tries to escape the small Idaho town where they live. Deidra is the most intelligent student in her school and likely the only one who not can but will go on to college. The demands of family, school, and her own deep yearning to break free of the stifling town make Deidra a desperate hero.

Need to bail their mother out of jail and raise enough funds to pay for college, Deidra decides to start pilfering shipping crates on the trains that constantly pass through their town. There is a wonderful metaphor here of forgotten, out of the way places whose residents can only dream of elsewhere as they watch trains taking mysterious things to fantastic places. It is both a hopeful and painfully sad longing, one that can only really be understood by those who have escaped the gravity of county living. Deidra drafts her younger sister Laney (played wonderfully by Rachel Crow), her deadbeat dad, high school guidance counselor (played by the hilarious Sasheer Zamata), and a would-be boyfriend to make her plan work. And it does. That is, right up to when it doesn’t.

Director Sydney Freeland gives us a story of two mixed race girls saving their family, securing their future, and striking a blow against the soul-crushing world of one of the whitest, remotest states. There are genuinely tender moments between all the leads (who are all women) as well as wonderfully funny moments that both mix together to create a compelling story.


Sand Castle

War Film 
April 21, 2017 
1 hour, 53 min.

First Thought: One of the best war movies you’ll ever see.

What makes this movie a quality film is that it is built around the consequences of aggression and the all too real work of most of the military–rebuilding. The whole of this film is about digging a well in the desert for people caught in the crossfire of a needless war. Matt Ocre, played by Nicholas Hoult, is an infantryman dealing with the fact that he’s not a soldier. Rather, Ocre is a kid who was duped into military service because it offered one of the only routes to go to college. Unlike the other soldiers around him, Ocre feels out of place. He’s ashamed: “A war story can’t be true unless it has some shame attached to it.”

However, don’t think that this film is some kind of cautionary tale or indictment. Ocre isn’t a bad soldier, he isn’t a coward, and he isn’t a troublemaker. He’s a young man desperately trying to figure out the world around him, one that is literally foreign through a lens that is wholly artificial. Ocre and his unit are tasked with delivering water and rebuilding a well that was inadvertently destroyed by the US military during the second Iraq war. To repair, to make restitution, to rebuild trust is the metaphor here, and we see just how complicated that is for mere grunts to carry out. Yet, they all dutifully do so.


I Don’t Feel At Home In This World Anymore

February 24, 2017 
1 hour, 36 min.

First Thought: A whitetrash clusterfuck story, but a good movie. Melanie Lynskey, as always, is fucking brilliant.

An easy way to sum this indie film up is as Falling Down, Michael Douglas’s angry white man opus, but with a woman. That is, of course, far too simplistic but there are odd overlaps of sentiment between the two films–a general malaise and dissatisfaction bordering on depression that manifests itself as being disgusted with human indecency. But when Ruth’s (played brilliantly by Melanie Lynskey) house is burglarized a switch is flipped in her and her anger comes to the surface. In a misguided attempt at taking control Ruth goes on a slow burn adventure that eventual spirals to into one of the biggest clusterfuck scenes you’ll ever see. 

I don’t feel that this is a thriller, rather it feels more like a dark comedy in the Fargo style. Ruth feels isolated but teaming up with her martial arts poser neighbor Tony, played by Elijah Woods, the two develop a real friendship. The duo go out to take back Ruth’s stole goods and then to hunt down the thief, in doing so they stumble into an underworld of sorts. It is one where there is real desperation unlike Ruth’s white malaise and a deep contempt for social norms. When violence happens it is sudden, shocking, over the top, and disgusting. Yet there are hilarious interactions and scenes that play as fantastic deadpan as well as tender scenes of touching humanness. Ultimately, I Don’t Feel At Home In This World Anymore is a film you have to be patient with but watching it is like reading a very good short story.

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