Netflix roundup: Netflix makes some very good (and very bad) originals

The Good

Icarus

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Icarus is a Netflix Original documentary, and it deservedly won the Oscar for best feature documentary earlier this month. The film follows Bryan Fogel (who doubles as subject and director) and his Super Size Me-style quest to dope (i.e., take performance-enhancing drugs) in semi-professional cycling and get away with it to prove how easy it is to cheat. When he enlists the help of a Russian scientist to get away with this scheme, however, the story pivots from uncovering doping in cycling to uncovering the state-sponsored effort by Russia to have all of its Olympic athletes dope.

Fogel plays this transition slowly, allowing the tension to build. So many of the best documentaries are accidental: beginning as one thing and becoming another, but always allowing the cameras to continue rolling. Fogel leans into the twists and surprises, and ends up producing what is at once a high-stakes political thriller and a personal story of a man trapped under the weight of an oppressive regime.

Icarus: 3 stars

On Body and Soul

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On Body and Soul is about two co-workers who discover they have the same dream, in which they are both deer. This Netflix Original was up for best foreign film at the Oscars this year, and it would have been a shock if it had won: this is a pretty strange movie. But it has a pleasant, almost spiritual cadence to it that makes it a very enjoyable watch. The dream itself is pretty mundane: the deer walk around and drink from a stream, for the most part. The relationship between the two main characters isn’t one often seen on screen: it’s somewhere between a romance and a metaphysical connection. I’m not quite sure what it all adds up to, but I know I would watch it all again.

On Body and Soul: 3 stars

The Bad

Happy Anniversary

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I was modestly excited for Happy Anniversary at the beginning of the year: a rom-com with a unique premise (a couple decides whether or not to stay together on their anniversary), starring two TV actors I adore (Noel Wells from Master of None and Ben Schwartz from Parks & Recreation). What I watched instead was one of the worst films I’ve ever seen, full stop. It felt like it was filmed in about 3 hours. It felt like no one bothered to edit this movie. It felt like someone read about how American rom-coms work and then tried to write one, without ever watching them to see how they actually look and feel. Netflix has kicked off 2018 with a slew of critically panned originals; if this is their plan to take over the film industry, I’m not buying it.

Happy Anniversary: 1 star

Strong Island

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Strong Island is another Netflix Original documentary, and lost out to the aforementioned Icarus at the Oscars this year. The film examines the death of director Yance Ford’s brother, the lack of punishment for his killer, and how the case relates to the killing of unarmed black men in American at large. While watching Strong Island, though, I found myself wondering whether a film can be too intimate.

Great movies are great because they tell a story that is both universal and personal. But there’s a difference between a personal story and a private story. Ford films herself calling the police department about the details of her brother’s case, sobbing; she reads from her brother’s diary; she interviews her sister and mother about their emotional trauma. While Strong Island might be a story with value, it also felt deeply uncomfortable, as if I was peering inside someone else’s home, learning things that I had no business being a part of.

Strong Island: 2 stars