Are they really theatrical releases or merely television movies?
When it comes to Netflix, the lines get blurry. To ensure they are eligible for Oscars and not Emmys, the streaming service launches them at film festivals and ensures they have limited runs in theaters (if only for a week), before making them available to its 137 million subscribers worldwide.
Two recently released productions are getting a lot of attention. One is getting real Oscar buzz, and the other has created a frenzy, the likes of which haven’t been seen for a film in months.
“Bird Box” (U.S. rated R)
Cast: Sandra Bullock, Trevante Rhodes, John Malkovich, Sarah Paulson
Let’s just get this out of the way immediately – the response to the new film “Bird Box” has been perplexing and unfathomable! Particularly with regard to the explosion on social media, it’s unclear why everyone seems to be so worked up about this post-apocalyptic drama. The film is decent enough, but perhaps not quite deserving of all this attention.
In it, we learn that when a mysterious force decimates the global population, only one thing is certain: If you see it, you die. The survivors must now avoid coming face-to-face with an entity that takes the form of their worst fears. Searching for hope and a new beginning, a woman (Sandra Bullock) and her children embark on a dangerous journey through the woods and down a river to find the one place that may offer sanctuary. To make it, they’ll have to cover their eyes from the evil that chases them, and complete the trip blindfolded.
Between the endless tweets, constant memes, videos and the idiotic nonsense like the “Bird Box Challenge” – with participants trying to accomplish tasks blindfolded – not since “Black Panther” early last year has a movie created this much of a stir. Twice in one week I’ve heard “bird box” or “bird boxing” used as a verb!
Apparently, it’s breaking records too, with Netflix revealing that in its first week some 45 million subscriber accounts watched the picture, about one-third of total worldwide subscribers.
Sure, the concept and story are intriguing. But the familiarity of it all is a bit troubling. The first thing that comes to mind is last year’s unsettling “A Quiet Place”, in which victims would be slaughtered by hideous monsters if they made any noise at all.
While the 2014 eponymous book on which “Bird Box” is based predates “A Quiet Place”, the sense that we’ve seen a lot of this before is pervasive.
There are also similar themes in a handful of other movies, like “The Happening”, “The Mist” and “It Comes at Night”, and a number of situations are similarly represented in TV’s long-running post-apocalyptic zombie drama “The Walking Dead”.
What sets “Bird Box” apart, however, is the strength of its performances. The cast is stellar, especially the spectacular Bullock, who is always a pleasure to watch, and Trevante Rhodes (“Moonlight”). Plus, there’s John Malkovich, playing exactly how you’d imagine John Malkovich to behave in an apocalypse.
But fine performances may not be enough for viewers who would love answers to the many questions the film poses and refuses to address.
For many, that may be fine, as this will allow for active imaginations to try to figure it all out and spirited discussions on likely theories. But many others will likely not be able to accept or appreciate the ambiguity.
Regardless, “Bird Box”, while far from perfect, is undeniably entertaining, suspenseful and even fun to watch and shout at.
But for the sake of the rest of us, just please try to control yourself after you’ve finally seen it!
“Roma” (U.S. rated R)
Cast: Yalitza Aparicio, Marina de Tavira, Jorge Antonio Guerrero
This will likely be a tough sell for many: a black-and-white foreign language film (in Spanish) set predominantly in the Colonia Roma neighborhood of Mexico City in 1970 and 1971, about a live-in housekeeper who takes care of a large white middle-class family going through some interesting family drama.
Besides briefly touching on some of the deadly protests and unrest taking place in Mexico during that time, the film is free of assassins, aliens, robots, superheroes and deadly viruses.
At its heart and soul, it’s just a simple story about life and family.
From famed Oscar-winning Director Alfonso Cuarón (“Gravity” and “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban” – arguably the best in the entire Harry Potter series), the film features decent performances and some incredibly powerful scenes.
But what stands out most is Cuarón’s direction. The choice to use black-and-white may seem gimmicky, but the overall effect is something akin to artwork. “Roma” is a visual masterpiece, replete with beautifully odd but mesmerizing angles.
At times, you wish you would not have to read the subtitles so you could stop and take a moment to bask in the scene and the placement of objects within each frame. This is a master class in film composition.
Already up for Best Language Film, Best Director and Best Screenplay at this weekend’s Golden Globe awards, the film is a strong early contender for Best Foreign Language and likely Best Director nominations for next month’s Academy Awards.
And for viewers less concerned about awards, it is a mature and welcome respite from all the other outlandish subjects that have constituted real drama in theaters in the past year.
• Dwight Strachan is the host/producer of “Morning Blend” on Guardian Radio and station manager. He is a television producer and writer, and an avid TV history and film buff. Email [email protected] and follow him on twitter @morningblend969.