That feeling you get when you have been scrolling through films and TV for 2 hours without making a decision. Here I’ll try and help with that.
Since writing this monthly article, I have come to realise that the focus has mostly been on Netflix rather than its streaming competitors. The issue is that Netflix, regardless of quality, is the equivalent of a bull in a china shop when it comes to content. Every month, regardless of the research I do, there is always a surprise project that pops up out of nowhere to garner 5-star reviews (Flint Town comes to mind), or on the other end of the spectrum you have The Titan, a project with a big name star whose plot looks like the visual epitome of a word vomit. Don’t get me wrong, I’ll suffer through Mute if it means programs like Ugly Delicious or The Defiant Ones can be green-lit. But why are we not talking about its competitors? Does Amazon really only see Prime video as a side project to help ‘sell shoes’?. And with Hulu struggling to adapt to a need for volume through a tumultuous time where nobody quite knows who will own them. So does this mean that Netflix will be the dominant force in 2018? It sure looks that way.
Netflix is impressive in how it is targeting their customer base via its social media platforms which enables them to add a sort of cultural currency to its service. They humanise their tweets and clearly know their product, enabling them to talk directly to their different pots of customers with language that adapts to that particular shows fan base by referencing a line of dialogue or referring to an inside piece of information or easter egg which allows for interaction. A social transaction which costs very little but pays dividends in satiating their viewers. It’s exactly why The Ringer gets so much love for its podcast network. Not only do we want content, but we want to discuss it and dissect it, Netflix knows this, their products are not just for viewing, their aim is for them to be part of television and films cultural tapestry. They may not always hit their lofty ambitions, with critics relishing the opportunity to tear into an ‘original’, but they must be commended for their efforts and success. For Amazon Prime and Hulu, their sole aim is to sell you a product and their social media efforts reflect this. I am not naive enough to elevate Netflix above this capitalist venture, of course, their end goal is the same, but their journey in getting there is completely different.
This isn’t to say that there are not projects on its competitors worthy of seeking out, but with the recent leaked viewing stats of Amazon Prime video, it is quite frightening to see how wide the gap may actually be. They measure their viewers under a ‘first stream’ model. Basically, once you have signed up for Amazon Prime the first show you stream is seen as the program that ‘lured’ you into signing up. The company then calculates how expensive the viewer was to acquire by dividing the show’s costs by the number of first streams it had. The lower this figure is, the more successful the show has been. With the Prime membership being at $99, it is quite scary to see how many shows, given their cost, are actually not profitable for Amazon. Take the critically acclaimed show Good Girls Revolt, the show only survived one season on the service. When you consider that it had 52,000 first streams at a cost of $81m, Amazon’s calculations show this show cost $1,560 per stream. It is easy to see why it was cancelled. So without going further into the current politics of streaming, let’s see what April has in store across the platforms.
Westworld Season 2 – Created by Jonathan Nolan, Lisa Joy
Available on HBO and Sky Atlantic from April 22nd
After spending a season wondering through the blood-soaked maze of Westworld, we are allowed entry once more to see the aftermath of what looked like a murderous uprising. Having spent much of its first season drip feeding us clues, the season finale did give us some answers. Delores (Evan Rachel Wood) was, in fact, the ruthless Wyatt all along, the Man in Black (Ed Harris) was an older more grizzled and hardened version of the young well-meaning William (Jimmi Simpson) and Bernard who often held our hand through the twists and turns the park presented was left questioning his humanity when he was revealed to be a host. It will be interesting to see how Nolan and Joy follow up on what is now HBO’s 2nd biggest property behind Game of Thrones. The way in which they displayed humanities darkest desires, meant that the roles were smartly reversed as the humans played our deplorable antagonists and the robots were somewhat our heroes. With the Hosts as our conduits, they delved deep into what it means to have consciousness, to be in control of your decisions; to become human.
The majority of the terrific cast will be returning, unfortunately, it also looks like the shows split timelines will be in place again this season, a narrative ploy which at times pushed the breaks as the show was hitting its stride. Nobody wants to see more Jimmi Simpson and Ben Barnes when you can see Anthony Hopkins chewing up the thespian scenery with a grizzled Ed Harris as its counterpoint. Given the brief introduction of a Shogun World (with the promise of 4 more worlds), one hopes that we will meet a Ronin or two along the way. From the looks of the trailer, we will get that and even more with the promise of what looks like an all-out war whilst the hosts figure out their place in the world. Hell hath no fury like a woke host.
The Handmaid’s Tale Season 2 – Created by Bruce Miller
Available on Hulu and Channel 4 from April 25th
Barring the absolutely dreadful soundtrack choices that often ended each episode, The Handmaid’s Tale was a superbly written show whose dystopia rather worryingly reflects parts of our own society. The story of a mostly infertile society ran by power-hungry leaders whom, after a civil war, have adopted a regime of zealotry, punishing and subjugating women for the worlds newly found difficulties to reproduce. Elisabeth Moss may have made her name in Mad Men, but it is her brilliant turn as Offred which is her best work so far. The simmering hate and disdain she has for everyone around her boil rather beautifully under the surface, her forced smile purposefully hiding nothing from its audience. When we left her in the season finale she was being led into a van for an uncertain future. We had already been shown that in her world you can trust no one and her relationship with Nick, her Commanders driver, had turned intimate with or without trust. What may happen to Offred is anyone’s guess as for the shows source material, Margaret Atwood’s 1985 novel of the same name, finishes at the same point.
Given the show’s popularity (even without Hulu’s secretive viewing numbers), this is a property where a lack of source material won’t stop its creators from milking the proverbial cow. But as we saw with the last season of Game of Thrones (see Beyond the Wall), this doesn’t always work out well.
Come Sunday – Directed by Joshua Marston
Available on Netflix from April 13th
Netflix needs a hit, too many recent big-money acquisitions have failed in the streaming giants attempts to be taken seriously. Sure, Annihilation was an absolutely brilliant piece of sci-fi from Alex Garland, but the conversations around its commerciality were proven right by extremely low viewing figures on its theatrical run in America. Netflix may act like it doesn’t care about what critics think or say about their purchases and productions, but clearly, films like Mudbound and Beasts of No Nation were bought as serious pictures to attract serious praise. Come Sunday seems to be a project of similar ilk. At once a project directed by Jonathan Demme starring Robert Redford and Jeffrey Wright, the film now has Chiwetel Ejiofor and Martin Sheen starring with Joshua Marston of Maria Full of Grace fame behind the camera. With Ejiofor, they have an actor that has seemed destined to always be on the cusp of greatness, questionable career choices have always held him back. Here he stars as Bishop Carlston Pearson, a Pentecostal priest who loses his following and the backing of the church when he begins to question the scripture and more specifically how it believes that souls must be “saved” in order to avoid eternal damnation.
Based on a true story, Come Sunday premiered at Sundance earlier this year to some mixed reviews. All reviews did, however, single out Ejiofor’s performance alongside the rising Lakeith Stanfield. Perhaps this film will stand as another example of the death of mid-budget movies in our cinemas. Another cross for Netflix to bear (They bought the distribution right pre-Sundance). But perhaps we can put the politics to one side and potentially admire another powerhouse performance from Ejiofor.
Psychokinesis – By Yeon Sang-ho
Available on Netflix from 25th April
In the last few years, we’ve seen some pretty awful attempts at injecting new blood into the Zombie genre. We’ve had zombies beavers (Zombeavers), Period drama zombies (Pride and Prejudice and Zombies) and Schwarzenegger vs. Zombies (Maggie) which actually upon reflection isn’t as bad as zombie beavers. However, it is Train to Busan by Korean director Yeon Sang-ho which shows that there is plenty of life left in the genre. Who would have thought zombies on a train could work so well? With Korean cinema extremely popular in the west, it is no surprise to see that Train to Busan has an extremely cult following, with many wondering what Sang-ho would follow up with. And now we know it will be Psychokinesis which has landed on Netflix having been released in its native South Korea in January. A supernatural comedy about a blue-collar security officer (Ryu Seung-ryong) who discovers that he can move things with his mind, our protagonist uses his superpowers to help out his young daughter, opting to go small rather than big in saving the world.
There are high expectations for Sang-ho who has finally broken through onto the global stage 21 years after he began. If anything, we can at least be confident that this will be an entertaining and refreshing look at a superhero movie. It also gives me an excuse to bring up Train to Busan again, and it’s little-known prequel Seoul Station, which was weirdly released a month after. As a bonus, you can watch that here.
6 Balloons – Directed by Marja-Lewis Ryan
Available on Netflix from April 6th
If you had told me a year ago that Dave Franco and Abbi Jacobson will be making a straight-faced drama about a relapsed heroin addict and his sisters attempts at saving him, I would have called you a fucking liar. In fact, I am still tempted to do so because this pairing, and that plot, go together as badly as the cast from Closer. But somehow this experiment seems to have worked with Variety, The Hollywood Reporter and Roger Ebert’s site all commending the film and its leads, with Abbi Jacobson throwing away her Broad City tropes to show us her dramatic chops. Dave Franco has always been overshadowed by his older more outgoing brother, but in recent years he has been making moves in Hollywood, but like Jacobson, these moves have mostly been in the realm of comedy.
At 77 minutes running time, 6 Balloons sounds like a made for TV movie, a type of movie that Netflix’s barrage of content suggests they are looking to own for the generation Z audience. If that sounds like a criticism, it isn’t one. The way in which the younger generation consumes films and television has changed forever. Therefore, so has the term TV movie. At one point this translated to ‘cheaply made with washed up actors and poorly acted (insert genre here) film’, but now with the money Netflix is chucking at known and up and coming talents, these low to mid budget films come with known stars, and high production values. With 6 Balloons this looks to be the case, and we should commend Netflix for giving female writer/director Marja-Lewis Ryan a limitless audience for her debut feature. After all they’ve been taken a critical battering for their originals so far this year, hopefully this is a film which starts to turn the tide.