“Buen Día, Ramón” –The Sun Will Come Out Tomorrow

 

Buen Dia Ramon

The German-Mexican co-production, “Buen Día Ramón” (“Good Day, Ramón”) tells the unusual story of a poor young Mexican immigrant named Ramon who emigrates to Germany after having incredibly bad luck in his multiple attempts to emigrate to the US illegally. Desperately in need of finding work to support his mother and provide medicine to his grandmother, he decides, on a friend’s advice, to travel to Germany.

Ramon’s remarkable openness to accept the kindness of strangers and begrudge none of his hardships is rendered believable. Struggling to survive on the street, he sleeps in a train station, and becomes increasingly desperate to earn money to send home. Yet he never builds defenses, remaining optimistic and determined, with an innocent enthusiasm that is, at times, astonishing in its emotional generosity and guilelessness.

On an ordinary day shopping for something to eat, the young Mexican meets Ruth, a lonely senior.   Soon, she befriends Ramon and lets him sleep in her apartment basement, even though another tenant disapproves. In one especially poignant scene, Ramon has prepared a Mexican dinner for Ruth and they sit down to enjoy the meal together in her apartment. Ruth gradually reveals secrets she has never told anyone else. In turn, Ramon conveys his deep felt gratitude to her for changing his life. Confiding in each other in German and Spanish, neither understands the other in language but in emotion. Their bond is unbreakable.

I have to admit I am drawn to bicultural co-productions. The layers of complexity in navigating and directing actors with different cultural and linguistic points of view enriches the movie-viewing experience. “Buen Día, Ramón” exemplifies this. The alternating points-of-view are not only character-based but culturally based.

The actors who play Ramon (Kristyan Ferrer) and the German Ruth (Ingeborg Shöner) are understated, with such charm and poignancy that the incredible friendship becomes credible.   Ramon’s story is an unexpectedly lyrical tale of perseverance, tenacity, and generosity. “Buen Día, Ramóín” considers how friendship develops despite all sorts of challenges in a deeply affecting manner. This movie is a simple pleasure that no one should miss.

 

Note:  Available on Netflix

“Happy Valley”-No One’s Idea of Happiness

Happy Valley

This compelling and addictive police drama stars Sarah Lancashire as  the middle-aged Yorkshire police sergeant Catherine Cawood,  who struggles daily between remembering  the suicide of her teenage daughter and developing love for the young boy her daughter left behind.  Divorced and estranged from her son partly because of that tragic death, Catherine  is determined to capture her daughter’s lover/killer/rapist, but the search almost spirals out of control when the perpetrator, Tommy Lee Royce (played by James Norton) is released from prison.  Her pursuit of Tommy Lee Royce becomes an obsession.

A popular BBC production distributed by Netflix on August 20, Happy Valley consists of  six episodes, which  do not involve any hunting for clues, since we know the heinous nature of the crime from the first episode.  But the characters are so sharply drawn and the situation so suspenseful that binge viewing is the way to go.   . The proliferation of drugs, corruption of government, and police complicity are part of the  problems  she faces every day.

Cawood is the type of woman we rarely see on television:   self-aware at times,  unbelievably vulnerable and foolish also.  Occasionally, she is just out of control–both emotionally and physically–and recklessly puts herself in danger. Happy Valley

“Happy Valley”, like “The Fall” (also from the U.K. and distributed exclusively through Netflix) as well as The Killing and The Bridge (American adaptations of two Scandinavian shows)—not to mention the mother of them all, Prime Suspect—suggests just how much a thriller can be designed focusing on  a woman  police officer, who is damaged but tenacious in accomplishing what she needs to.  Season Two of this highly unusual drama is being produced now and scheduled for US release in January 2015.

 

“House of Cards”–Season 2: The Main Course

house-cards-season-3-release-date
House of Cards–season 2

I just binged on the second season of  the Emmy-award winning “House of Cards,” the Netflix-produced political saga starring Kevin Spacey as Frank Underwood and Robin Wright as his wife Claire as it continues its narratively complex drama– even better than 2013’s!  (See my February 2013 review of the first season, “House of Cards”–A Bulimic Buffet for Couch Potatoes?)

In this riveting thriller of political ambition, power, and hubris of Shakespearian proportions, we see the Underwoods cement their lethal relationship as the über power couple on the Beltway, energized by each other’s ruthlessness. Determined to leave no enemy unharmed, the two share everything:  strategy, tactical maneuvers, and annihilation without mercy. But both Claire and Frank have backstories, hinting at the damage that has been done to them.  Their wounds remain unhealed.

Claire and Frank Underwood pursue power without any internalized sense of obligation, morality, or responsibility resulting in the viewer’s fascination and fear of the Underwoods’  impending path of destruction. Frank is unmoved by barbecue vendor Freddy’s refusal to patronize a new butcher who tortuously slow-bleeds the hogs.  Slow-bleeding hogs do not even register on Frank’s radar, a  Vice President who wants policies made his way, and only his way.

In episode after episode of this alarming drama, this pair of frightening anti-heroes–nonetheless earn our reluctant admiration for their brilliant understanding of human psychology.  They can visualize motivations and blind spots even their foes are not fully aware of. Consequently, the Underwoods seem to have no worthy adversary except each other.

In the season finale, Frank is alone in the Oval Office –or rather, talking to us, the viewers on camera.  He taps twice with his ring, a lesson his father had taught him: knock once to toughen your knuckles for a fight and once for good luck.

Prepared, with bare-knuckle fighting almost certainly in his future, Frank knocks twice on the desk in the Oval Office.  But will Claire be the one he has to fight, the blind spot for him? The one he can’t overcome?  We’ll have to wait until February 2015 to see how this immorality play unravels, and how the toy soldiers Frank loves to create symbolize a challenge to his game.

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!