“Orange is the New Black”–Life Behind Bars

Orange is the New BlackThis is a caged beast financed and produced by Netflix: thirteen episodes available on Instant Queue for binge viewing if you are so inclined.

“Orange is the New Black” (filmed on location in a women’s prison in Chino, California) is loosely based on the 2010 memoir by Piper Kerman (now an advocate for women prison reform.)  Piper Chapman (phenomenal newcomer Taylor Schilling) is a privileged Smith College graduate sentenced to 14 months in prison for the crime of smuggling drugs ten years earlier.  Her former lover from that time, fellow drug smuggler Alex Vaus (the pitch-perfect Laura Prepon), is  sent to the same prison.

The question:  How does one survive in an institution that can kill your soul?  Piper is blond, blue-eyed, terrified, but also an outsider because of an upbringing far removed from the world of most of the other inmates, mainly women of color–young, middle-aged, and old–guilty of crimes undeserving of such long prison sentences. Trying to develop some sort of connection with them as well as with the prison guards, Chapman is determined to learn how to survive and, in the learning process, changes in ways both unexpected and welcomed. Her fiancé (Jason Biggs of “American Pie” fame), a journalist, also changes while separated from Piper.

Each of the thirteen episodes flashes on a different inmate’s backstory: her life before prison.  These women’s snapshots interweave with Piper, whose story is the main spine of “Orange is the New Black”.  Moments of comedy morph so fast into dramatic, painfully dark scenes the viewer feels whiplashed!  Each situation has more than one moral choice, and all choices are lose-lose.  And every single inmate has to give up something with unbelievably high stakes. There are narrative arcs and character development to surprise even the most attentive viewer. “Orange is the New Black” is story-telling at its finest.

Riveting, spellbinding, and infused with dilemmas at every turn, this new mini-series–written by the superlative Jenji Kohan of “Weeds”—is, I believe,  one of the very best ever produced for television at a time when there is a fast-growing bounty of high-quality programs.  The opening footage of faces –just eyes and foreheads, then mouths and chins–is like none seen in what Hollywood persuades us to believe human faces are supposed to be like. And the dialog is terse, mesmerizing, and vibrates with nuggets of truth you want to never fail to remember!

Netflix–Give Me What I Want to Watch!!

We are all familiar with recommendations that are “pushed” towards us on e-commerce sites–think Amazon.com, Netflix, Pandora, and even Facebook (who suggests “friends”).  We never seem to receive Netflix recommendations that we like without suffering through a lot of misfires.  For every movie we really love, there are at least 20 duds.  And I have rated over 2580 movies on Netflix. So they should know what I like by now.

In a recent article in USA Today (April 9th) I learned that Netflix is trying desperately to improve its recommendation system, especially for its video-streaming service.  It seems that most subscribers watch the recommendations list provided by  Netflix on  Instant Queue.  (See my top 10 recommendations in my February 6, 2012 post) Netflix even offered a “Netflix Prize” of $1M to the individual or group who could recommend movies that viewers would rate higher than what Netflix predicted.

In the case of Netflix, their five star-rating system is used to determine what movies I might watch.  Netflix filters my past ratings as well as information on my Instant Queue  (knowing I watched only ten minutes of one of their suggested movie recommendations, for example).  With no experience in any of these high-tech algorithms, my husband and I have, nonetheless, become increasingly satisfied with the recommendations we are receiving both in Instant Queue and in the mail.  Why has this happened?  Because we have changed our method of rating movies to only one star or five stars–one star for “awful” and five stars for “wonderful”, with a few four stars “excellent, but flawed” thrown in.  No more waffling with two-star and three-star movies.  A three star vote is the same as not voting at all.

See for yourself how many two- and three-star movies are on the Netflix website–the vast majority of their inventory! Does the three-star movie (which means two stars to the left of the scale and two to the right) suggest it  is worth two hours of my time or does it mean that I didn’t want to rate it as a strong dislike, but  wish I hadn’t watched it anyway?

Get what you deserve–change your rating system to only the extreme likes and dislikes.  Never vote three stars. Then the recommendations will be more closely aligned to something worth watching, not a lot of  “meh”!


Netflix Instant Queue–BBC’s Your Best Bet

For those of you who like to curl up with a DVD at night mailed to you directly from Netflix, only to be disappointed after watching it for ten or fifteen minutes,  or finding that the DVD is defective and unwatchable, let me suggest some of the winners we have seen on Instant Queue in the last several months. Watching a movie via Netflix streaming isn’t much different from renting a DVD, but for TV fans it offers a unique way to view one episode after another of addictive series such as “Mad Men”, “Damages”, or “Breaking Bad”.  Viewers can now watch two or three one-hour episodes (or more, like us) in one sitting. A Netflix user can easily watch the whole series, even years after the series has ended.  Trying to catch up on a popular TV program that is a cumulative narrative is almost impossible, without Instant Queue, even with online services like Hulu. You don’t have to bother trying to remember what happened in last week’s episode, or worse–not understanding the three-minute recap!

Netflix has now become one of the entertainment industry’s largest buyers of television reruns, committing billions of dollars to multi-year deals. (Netflix owns a house in Park City specifically for the purpose of scouting independent films for distribution rights at the Sundance Film Festival.) Consequently, some of the choices on Instant Queue have expiration dates.  So, you may find that you postponed seeing a selection on your queue to discover that it is no longer available.  The nearly 10,000 films and television series available via Netflix streaming are independently financed pictures, movies that are not first-run, or television series, including BBC.

Reed Hastings (the Netflix founder and current CEO) may be taking only one dollar in salary but he needs to move on acquiring more content for Instant Queue.  That may be why two original TV series, financed by Netflix and intended to compete with HBO and other cable channels, are premiering this week.  Netflix committed to 26 episodes of “House of Cards,” at a cost of about $4 million per episode, based on the concept and talent involved (namely, Kevin Spacey).  A crime comedy called “Lilyhammer,” starring  Steven van Zandt of “The Sopranos,” premieres Monday, February 6.  The fourth season of “Arrested Development” will be financed and produced by Netflix as well.

Ted Sarandos, Chief Content Officer, said Netflix is “dabbling in original programming” in case it becomes “necessary to produce more ourselves.” Sarandos claims that the company’s algorithm derived from the massive database of Netflix customers’ viewing patterns and quality ratings can predict what will prove most popular and bid accordingly for distribution rights. (Are you kidding me?  Has anyone seen how many 3-out-of-5 star ratings there are–the equivalent of a “C” grade, which is not very informative.)

But, no need to wait for the new original series to fill up your list on Instant Queue.  There is a wide range of less well-known movies and television programs than on the DVD listings but we haven’t been disappointed in these series and mini-series produced by BBC (and usually first shown on public television via Masterpiece Theater).

1) Bramwell (1995): In 1895 London a woman doctor, facing extreme discrimination by all the elite hospitals, decides to open a free clinic for the poorest patients in the East End, supported by her physician father.  Starring Jemma Redgrave, Bramwell prevails under the most heinous circumstances with the best of intentions if not the most successful outcomes. (31 episodes)

2) A Politician’s Wife (1995):  The politics of Great Britain, that will trigger associations with “The Ides of March” as well as “The Iron Lady”, this mini-series is about a political wife’s saga to outsmart her unethical husband for his day of reckoning, starring the sublime Juliet Stevenson. (3 episodes)

3) The State Within (2006): Mark Brydon, a British ambassador to the United States, is caught in the middle of the political intrigue and coverup between the US government and Great Britain over war in Afghanistan. Jason Isaacs stars in this Golden Globe-nominated political thriller. (7 episodes)

And a few that are not from BBC:

4) The Tunnel (2001): Loosely based on true events during 1960s Berlin, an Olympic swimmer plots to dig a 145-yard underground tunnel to help his sister and others escape from the eastern side of the Berlin Wall.  Absolutely riveting.

5) Casino Jack  (2010):  Political lobbyist Jack Abramoff (Kevin Spacey), who stole tens of millions of dollars from Native American reservations, sells his influence to Washington’s “finest” and most corrupt. As justice slowly works its way into Abramoff’s office and closes off his escape route and that of his associates, the viewer realizes that not much has changed in DC.   A useful companion  to watch with this drama–“Casino Jack and the United States of Money”, a documentary.

Try some of these five from my list, let me know what you would recommend, and continue to discover the more obscure but worthwhile cinematic treasures we have to choose from–more than ever before!