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Streaming: Netflix and the Obamas raise the stakes

Netflix gears up for awards season with a Sundance winner backed by Michelle and Barack Obama’s production company

WT24 Desk

As if it weren’t aiming to subsume the cinema market in other ways, Netflix now seems to be mirroring its seasonal release patterns as well. As in the blockbuster-crammed multiplexes, the summer has been a generally dry patch for the streaming network’s so-called “originals”: the offbeat independents and festival acquisitions that often fill these column inches. As the summer winds down, however, and the industry braces itself for awards season – yep, believe it or not, it’s a six-month red-carpet run – Netflix is beginning to give us the good stuff again, according to The Guardian.

Their next prestige season warms up with American Factory, a documentary that was one of the talking points of January’s Sundance film festival, winning the best director prize and prompting immediate Oscar speculation. Since its premiere in the snows of Park City, Utah, the film has acquired an additional, rather illustrious claim to fame. It was picked up by Higher Ground Productions, the Netflix-allied production company founded by Barack and Michelle Obama last year, and is the first film from their stable to premiere on the service (it hits the Netflix menu on Wednesday). Higher Ground, launched with a noble-sounding if rather vague mission to “harness the power of storytelling”, has its eye on major media domination. Alongside the Netflix partnership, they’ve also signed a deal to produce exclusive podcasts for Spotify.

As you’d expect, social consciousness and minority representation are top of the agenda. Other Netflix projects being developed by Team Obama include a biopic of anti-slavery campaigner Frederick Douglass and Crip Camp, a documentary covering the early days of the disability rights movement. (It looks likely to appear at Sundance next year.) Tracing the conflicted growth of a Chinese-founded auto-glass factory in embattled industrial Ohio, American Factory is a suitable choice to announce their brand, though if you’re fearing a dry civics lesson, prepare for a more intriguingly ambiguous culture-clash study.

Local director duo Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert landed an Oscar nomination for their excellent 2009 short The Last Truck: Closing of a GM Plant, a humane, matter-of-fact study of a General Motors factory shut down in their hometown of Dayton, Ohio. (Sadly, unless you have access to US Amazon Prime, it doesn’t appear to be easily streamable.) American Factoryis a feature-length sequel they couldn’t have anticipated then, following the 2014 resurrection of the factory site as Fuyao Glass America by the Chinese billionaire entrepreneur Cao Dewang.

Thousands of lost jobs were regained, mixed with imported, more skilled workers from China, but this is no late-capitalist fairytale. Wages and working conditions take a hit, while the necessity of labour unions becomes a bone of contention between American and Chinese factions. Even-handed but less than optimistic, with stray streaks of mordant humour, American Factory depicts the American dream in a state of adapt-or-die (or even adapt-and-die) compromise. Released into Trump’s America, it will enrage some of the Make America Great Again contingent and leave others feeling dubiously vindicated. Here’s hoping the Obamas’ future producing endeavours are this complex and conversation-starting.

I can think of no graceful segue from American Factory to The Third Wife, but Vietnamese director Ash Mayfair’s debut feature – skipping cinemas, but available on DVD and the BFI Player – is so exquisite and under-the-radar that I had to give it a paragraph of its own. Reminiscent of the early work of Tran Anh Hung (The Scent of Green Papaya) even before you notice him credited as an artistic adviser, this ornate 19th-century period piece with a bracingly contemporary feminist outlook centres on the personal awakening of a teenage bride – the third of a much older, polygamous landowner – finding her place in the world and household alike. It’s sensuous, subtly furious film-making that pointedly contrasts its harsh gender relations with the ravishing delicacy of its imagery: shot like a watercolour in bamboo pastels, it might be the most gorgeous thing you see all year, even if not on the size of screen it deserves.

New to streaming & DVD

Wild Rose
(Universal, 15)
Jessie Buckley doubles down on the star-is-born promise she showed in Beast. This heart-soaring story of a hard-up Glaswegian country singer has a few script cobwebs, but her thrilling performance blasts them away.

Red Joan
(Lionsgate, 12)
Diverting but too tepid by half, Trevor Nunn’s flashback-heavy thriller about a pensioner (Judi Dench) arrested on suspicion of being a communist Russian spy would have worked better as Sunday night telly.

Pin Cushion
(Spirit, 15)
A belated DVD release for British director Deborah Haywood’s flawed but stylistically adventurous debut, starring the superb Joanna Scanlan and Lily Newmark as a mother and daughter both facing bullying in a new town.

Dragged Across Concrete
(StudioCanal, 18)
S Craig Zahler is a brilliant genre film-maker who delights in political aggravation. Case in point: casting Mel Gibson and Vince Vaughn in a stylish, rock-hard-boiled study of police violence with debatable sympathies.

(Arrow, 18)
Another one for the problematic-but-fascinating pile, William Friedkin’s notorious serial killer thriller set in the gay S&M underground gets a comprehensive Blu-ray restoration. It’s dated in some ways, and still subversive in others.

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