In today's edition, we're looking at Amazon's Oscar hopes, Sylvester Stallone's new Netflix series, plus "Sneaky Pete" on Amazon Prime and some creepy foreign-language horror films on Netflix! Want to recommend something or give us some feedback? Just hit REPLY on this email.
Amazon's "Manchester By the Sea" scored six Oscar nominations, including one for Best Picture, a first for any streaming service. Kenneth Lonergan's drama is also nominated for Casey Affleck's lead performance, and supporting turns from Lucas Hedges and Michelle Williams. Iran's foreign-language film nominee - "The Salesman" - is also being distributed stateside by Amazon. Though Netflix earned an Oscar nomination in 2014 for "The Square," and attempted to score nominations last year for "Beasts of No Nation," they have yet to receive a Best Picture nod. – THR
AT&T reports that it has signed up 200,000 customers for its video streaming DirecTV Now service. The company's traditional television offerings have continued to lose ground, but the $35 per month initial offering proved popular, particularly with younger subscribers in "urban centers." The growth came despite some complaints about outages and other early launch glitches, which were acknowledged by AT&T CFO John Stephens on today's earnings call, promising investors "we are working through the challenges." – LAT
Yesterday, Hulu released the first episode of "On Stage," its new virtual reality music show, produced along with Live Nation. The series is available through Hulu's VR app, and provides intimate portraits of famous musicians. The first episode features Lil Wayne performing and skateboarding around Los Angeles. A second episode, featuring Major Lazer, will bow at some point later this year. A 2D version of the clip - along with behind-the-scenes footage showing how the VR shoot was accomplished, has been made available on YouTube. – VARIETY
Netflix has dropped a first trailer for "Ultimate Beastmaster," a punishing obstacle course competition show produced by Sylvester Stallone. The series - which has been compared to "American Ninja Warrior" and its Japanese inspiration, "Sasuke" - pits 108 competitors from 6 countries against one another as they tackle The Beast, called "the most physically demanding obstacle [course] ever devised." In an innovative international twist, customized versions of the show will be produced for each of the different competing countries: Brazil, Germany, Japan, Mexico, South Korea and the US. "Ultimate Beastmaster" debuts on February 24. – SLASHFILM
Netflix won a bidding war for spec comedy script "The Eggplant Emoji," to be produced by Ben Stiller's Red Hour Films. Also involved in the production are Blake Anderson, Adam Devine, Anders Holm and Kyle Newacheck of Comedy Central's "Workaholics" series. (Newacheck will likely direct.) The script concerns a teenager rushing to save his penis after it's accidentally severed during a camping trip. The spec was written by Kevin Burrows and Matt Mider, creators of the GQ animated series "Gentlemen Lobsters." – THR
Following this morning's new update, Apple's TV app now supports HBO Go a well as HBO Now. The app allows subscribers to store log-in credentials, meaning they can watch HBO content within the app with no additional sign-ins required. As well, viewing history and other data from HBO content will be fed automatically to Apple, allowing the company to include these shows along with its algorithmically-generated recommendations. Though ESPN and Disney are also supporting the app, there's still no support for Netflix or cable providers, such as Comcast or Time Warner Cable. – VERGE
RECOMMENDED ON AMAZON: "Sneaky Pete"
Hyper-compelling but ultimately kind of disposable, "Sneaky Pete" is seemingly scientifically designed to binge. While it clearly aspires to the greatness of a crime series like "Breaking Bad" (with which it shares an actor/producer, Bryan Cranston), it's a lot less interested in developing three-dimensional characters or really speaking to any greater themes than "Uh oh, this guy's tough" or "how's he gonna get out of this?". Still, what it does well, it does well, presenting just enough obstacles and complications in front of its protagonist to keep you hitting that Next Episode button.
Giovanni Ribisi stars as Marius, a veteran pickpocket and con man leaving prison after a 3 year stint. Unfortunately, an all-around dangerous former mark, Vince (Cranston), is convinced Marius owes him $100,000, and has taken Marius's brother Eddie (Michael Drayer) hostage while he awaits his payment. So Marius devises a plan: Pose as Pete, his goofball cell mate, and go stay with that guy's distant family, the grandparents and cousins he hasn't seen in 20 years. (See, Pete never shuts up about his childhood memories on the farm, so Marius knows juuuuuuuust enough to make the ruse work. Yes, it's very convenient, but just go with it.)
What follows is an escalating series of cat and mouse games that should be familiar to anyone who's watched a few recent shows in this genre. Family members, particularly Pete's savvy grandparents who run a bail bonds business, inch closer and closer to discovering the truth about Marius. Vince gets closer and closer to figuring out Marius's location. And we even get some side stories about Pete's family and their struggling business. It lacks some of the polish and intensity of "Breaking Bad" or Netflix's "House of Cards," but does share one important element with those shows: each episode promises you JUST enough twists and turns to make tuning in for another 45 minutes tempting.
What REALLY sells some of the creakier plot maneuvers in "Sneaky Pete" (and there are a few) is this cast. Ribisi's idiosyncratic awkwardness may seem odd for a guy playing a con man, but the show really makes this work for it, showcasing how Marius makes his marks feel superior, which in turn makes them over-confident. Margo Matindale and Peter Gerety and Audrey and Otto, Pete's grandparents, nearly steal the show away, capturing how these two rugged individualists, used to taking care of themselves, push back against the inevitability of aging and losing their step. I frequently found myself wishing we could stay in the world of Bridgeport, Connecticut, bail bonds instead of constantly zipping back to Cranston's poker room in the big city.
"Sneaky Pete" may not make a lot of year-end best of lists, but if you want a darkly funny, sometimes exciting, and easy-to-binge crime/con series, you could do far far worse.
Title: Sneaky Pete
Where to Watch: Amazon
Episodes: 1 season, 10 episodes
Runtime: Around 50 minutes each
RECOMMENDED ON NETFLIX: Three Foreign-Language Horror Films
This darkly comic fairy tale from South Korea that takes an exceptionally grim, brutal turn over the course of an epic 2 and a half hours. It follows a cop, Jong-goo (Kwak Do-won) as he investigates a mysterious illness sweeping his mountain village, causing at first a rash, then uncontrollable violent outbreaks, and eventually death. The case becomes personal when his own young daughter becomes infected, and Jong-goo slowly becomes convinced that the victims aren't suffering from an illness at all, but a curse. The film was a hit in Korea, and made such an impact, Ridley Scott is already developing a US remake.
UNDER THE SHADOW
Set in 1980s Tehran, in the midst of the Iran-Iraq war, Babak Anvari's mother-daughter ghost story moves subtlety from a realistic depiction of life during the conflict into horror, in a way that makes the supernatural elements feel extremely lived in and real. The use of stillness and background noise, and the claustrophobic main setting, a small apartment in a city that's undergoing intense shelling, serve to continually heighten the tension, and when Anvari does throw in some special effects or go for a genuine scare, it's all the more terrifying. (Remarkably, this is his debut feature.)
This phantasmagoric nightmare from Turkey is exclusively for the cult/midnight movie fans because it is a disturbing freakout in the extreme. Five cops are called away from the local restaurant where they're hanging out to provide backup at an old, abandoned police station, dating back to the Ottoman Empire days. When they arrive, however, they discover some kind of Black Mass already in progress, and are unwillingly force to take part in the ceremony. There's plenty of blood and viscera on display, but it's really the ambiguity - the hints of all the extremely gruesome, disturbing stuff happening just beyond the edges of the frame - that has stuck with me days later. NOT FOR THE FAINT OF HEART.