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Binge watching on Netflix no longer requires internet access

Netflix subscribers can now binge on many of their favorite shows and movies even when they don’t have an internet connection.

The long-awaited offline option announced this week gives Netflix’s 87 million subscribers offline access to videos for the first time in the streaming service’s decade-long history.

Netflix is matching a downloading feature that one of its biggest rivals, Amazon.com, has been offering to its video subscribers for the past year. It’s something that also has been available on YouTube’s popular video site, though a subscription is required in the U.S. and other countries where the site sells its “Red” premium service.

The new feature puts Netflix a step ahead of two other major rivals. Offline options aren’t available on HBO’s internet-only package, HBO Now, or Hulu, although that service has publicly said it hopes to introduce a downloading feature.

Netflix subscribers wishing to download a video on their smartphone or tablet need to update the app on their Apple or Android device.

Not all of the selections in Netflix’s video library can be downloaded, although several of the service’s most popular shows, including “Orange Is The New Black,” “House of Cards,” and “Stranger Things,” are now available to watch offline.

Downloadable movies include “Spotlight,” this year’s Oscar winner for best film. Notably missing from the downloadable menu are movies and TV shows made by Walt Disney Co. Those still require an internet connection to watch on Netflix.

The Los Gatos, California, company is promising to continue to adding more titles to its offline roster.

Netflix CEO Reed Hastings had long resisted calls for an offline-viewing option, much to the frustration of customers who wanted flexibility to use their subscriptions to watch a show or movie when traveling on a train, plane or car where internet connections are spotty or completely unavailable.

Earlier this year, Hastings finally indicated he might relent and introduce downloading.

The change of heart coincided with Netflix’s expansion into more than 130 countries, including many areas with shoddy or expensive internet connections that make the ability to watch video offline even more appealing.

Netflix ended September with 39 million subscribers outside of the U.S.

The offline option may accelerate the decline of Netflix’s steadily shrinking DVD-by-mail service, which offers the ability to watch video without an internet connection. Netflix’s DVD side still has one distinct advantage — access to recent theatrical releases before they are available for streaming.

Netflix’s DVD service ended September with 4.3 million subscribers, a decrease of nearly 10 million customers during the past five years.

Wisconsin-set ‘Making a Murderer’ tops winter streaming recommendations

Steven Avery.

It’s a name you might not have known a few weeks ago, but one that’s now almost inescapable thanks to Making a Murderer, Netflix’s answer to viral true crime sensations such as the podcast Serial and the HBO series The Jinx. Released in full on Dec. 18, the 10-episode documentary, rated “binge-worthy” by Time magazine, has captivated streaming audiences everywhere and is perhaps one of the most-watched original series released by the streaming service in an already-strong year.

Perhaps nowhere is the show more polarizing than here in Wisconsin. Avery, who’s from Manitowoc County, served 18 years in prison beginning in 1985 after being convicted of sexually assaulting a Manitowoc woman. He was ultimately exonerated of the charge, thanks to the efforts of the Wisconsin Innocence Project and DNA testing, and released in 2003. But a few years later, Avery was arrested again and charged with the death of photographer Teresa Halbach — a crime for which he’s currently serving a life sentence. Making a Murderer suggests the sheriff’s department and prosecutors mishandled the case at best and, at worst, could have framed him for it.

The response to that suggestion has been varied and often visceral. Two separate Internet petitions calling for the pardoning of Avery (and his nephew, Brendan Dassey, who was also convicted for the crime) have already amassed at least 160,000 signatures. A petition directed at the White House has the 100,000 signatures necessary to require President Obama to respond.  Prosecutors maligned by the documentary have come out harshly against it, with Manitowoc County Sheriff Robert Hermann telling Appleton’s The Post-Crescent that the series skews evidence, takes it out of context, and should be considered a “movie” rather than a documentary.

Make up your own mind. Netflix and its competitors both in streaming and traditional TV may be flooding the market with a glut of quality fictional programing, but even with its veracity challenged by those it condemns, Making a Murderer stands out as a vibrant examination of real life, raising real questions about the inner workings of our criminal justice system.

Some of the other top offerings from streaming services to watch for this winter are:

NETFLIX

Making a Murderer is going to dominate the conversation about Netflix for the next few months, but by March 4 the streaming service is poised to shift into campaign mode. That’s when its first success story House of Cards returns, with now-President Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey) embarking on a re-election campaign that’s sure to be as cutthroat as his original path to the White House.

This winter will also see the long-delayed arrival of the final season of Parks and Recreation on Jan. 13 (although it’s been on Hulu since airing), Chelsea Handler’s four-part documentary series Chelsea Does on Jan. 23, and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: Sword of Destiny, the delayed sequel to the 2000 martial arts film, on Feb. 26.

Netflix’s reboot of Full House also shows up on Feb. 26, but the more we hear about Fuller House, the more we want to tell everyone involved to “Cut It Out.”

AMAZON PRIME

The final months of 2015 were big ones for Amazon’s original programming. Transparent, the company’s first breakout success, turned in another exemplary set of 10 episodes in December, taking the story of transgender family matriarch Maura (Jeffrey Tambor) and her family in fascinating new directions that explored the family’s past tragedies and attempts to heal themselves in the present. Amazon Prime got another boost from The Man in the High Castle. Based on Philip K. Dick’s alternate historical novel of the same name, it explores what happens when Germany and Japan occupy and divide the United States after winning World War II. The series’ pilot was the most-watched in the history of Amazon Prime’s original programming when it premiered last January, and the full 10 episodes subsequently became the company’s most-streamed original series.

The second season of the classical-musicians-behaving-badly dramedy Mozart in the Jungle dropped on Dec. 30 and continues into 2016. Come for the resoundingly attractive Gael García Bernal, stay for national treasure Bernadette Peters.

HULU

Hulu’s value still resides primarily in the content it gets from other providers — with next-day streaming available for most network TV shows and an increasingly large library of Hollywood’s most popular films. 

But this winter marks the premiere of one of the service’s few original programs to date: 11.22.63. Based on a Stephen King novel, the nine-hour limited series follows a schoolteacher (played by James Franco) who travels back in time to prevent the assassination of JFK but finds his mission more complicated than he expected. The J.J. Abrams-produced series will start airing weekly episodes on (when else?) Presidents’ Day, Feb. 15.

HBO GO

If you’re a parent with an HBO subscription, this is the month you get to brag to all the other parents at daycare about how your munchkins have already seen the latest episodes of Sesame Street, premiering on the cable station and its streaming component HBO GO on Jan. 16 (don’t worry, the episodes will still air on PBS after a nine-month exclusivity window). After the kids go to bed, you can tag team episodes of Last Week Tonight with John Oliver and new ’70s music industry drama Vinyl starting Feb. 14, or wait a week to start half-hour comedies Girls and Togetherness Feb. 21.

See also: Netflix documentary stirs national debate over prosecutorial misconduct in famed Wisconsin murder case

The Rep goes behind closed White House doors

It’s rare when every living U.S. president gets together in a room. In the nation’s history, it’s only happened a handful of times, when either political obligation or tragedy summons the country’s current and former commanders in chief to the same physical location. 

It’s the sort of thing that gets you wondering: What passes for small talk in a room full of presidents?

That’s the question that led Rick Cleveland to write Five Presidents, the world premiere opening this month at the Milwaukee Rep. The play takes place on the day of Richard Nixon’s funeral, April 27, 1994, when the five remaining living presidents — Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton — assembled to pay respects.

Cleveland’s been a playwright for years, but he’s best known for his TV work on such shows as Six Feet Under, House of Cards and The West Wing — the latter of which marks the origin point for Five Presidents. While working on the show’s first season, he came across Shadow, the then-recently released book by Bob Woodward about those same five presidents, and he was struck by its cover photo depicting them at Nixon’s funeral. 

The idea of writing a play about that moment lodged in his mind and grew richer as time passed and more details about the presidents’ lives were revealed. “In 1994, when you see that photograph and Clinton’s on the cover,” Cleveland says, “we don’t know anything about Monica Lewinsky. … You can barely believe (George W. Bush) will be elected governor of Texas, let alone president. … You have no idea that an African-American is going to get elected president in (14) more years.”

But the play might still be gestating if Cleveland hadn’t bumped into Mark Clements. Clements had directed a play of Cleveland’s when he was the artistic director of Derby Playhouse in the U.K. When the two sat down for lunch in the winter of 2012, Clements asked if Cleveland had any ideas for a play. The Rep commissioned him to write Five Presidents shortly afterward.

Cleveland says the play has evolved steadily over the years, but one thing that’s stayed constant is a dedication to presenting these five men as authentically as possible. The Washington pols he befriended during his TV career served as benchmarks for accuracy: Would he be embarrassed to invite former press secretary Dee Dee Myers to see the play, or U.S. Sen. Chuck Schumer?

“I want to write a play that if they see it, they’ll go, ‘That’s credible. I can believe that would be discussed, or happen.’”

That’s why most of the play’s dialogue comes from actual conversations between the presidents on stage, albeit not from that exact date. “They have said it to somebody else, or they may have said it another day,” Cleveland says, “but they said it.” 

The play’s behind-closed-doors nature also allows Cleveland to show sides of the presidents that they don’t expose to the general public and to bring up grievances new and old. Clinton, for example, is a Southern Democrat who doesn’t fit in with any of the other presidents except Carter — whom he’s recently snubbed by sending Nixon on diplomatic missions instead. Carter is still upset about the Iranian hostage crisis, which cost him his election and was wrapped up 20 minutes after Reagan’s inauguration. Bush is still stunned by his electoral loss too, only a little more than a year earlier.

It’s a mix of conflicts that Cleveland says coalesced into an acclaimed run with the Arizona Theatre Company, co-producing the world premiere with the Rep. Watching the play develop there, Cleveland says he has a few tweaks to make for the Milwaukee run. He also has a sense of why the play’s been so successful — and it isn’t, he says, about the quality of the play at all. 

“It’s a nonpartisan portrayal of five men who have only been portrayed in a partisan way. … I think what the audience is finding so applause-worthy is that this is not the politics that they’re going home to and watching on Fox News or MSNBC or CNN. This is a more empathetic portrayal.”

ON STAGE

The Milwaukee Rep’s world premiere of Five Presidents runs through April 5 at 108 E. Wells St. Performances are at 7:30 p.m. weekdays, 8 p.m. Fridays, 4 and 8 p.m. Saturdays and 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays. Tickets start at $20 and can be ordered at 414-224-9490 or
milwaukeerep.com.

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‘House of Cards’ returns for 3rd season

Even if it never wins another award, “House of Cards” already ranks among the most influential series in television history.

The political drama launched Netflix’s expansion into original programming two years ago, a risky bet that might have toppled the Internet video service had “House of Cards” flopped and squandered its estimated $100 million investment. Instead, the show was an immediate hit with viewers and critics, giving Netflix the financial clout and creative firepower to further transform how we watch and define “television.” And it spurred other online services such as Amazon.com Inc. and Google’s YouTube to spend more on their own original content to create shows that rival those produced by broadcast and cable channels.

Season three debuted last week, giving fans a chance to see Frank and Claire Underwood continue their machinations, now from a hard-won White House perch. The show marks just one of more than 20 original series or movies that Netflix is scheduled to show this year. Producing that much original content would have seemed like a long shot before “House of Cards” first established Netflix as more than a convenient and cheap way to watch recycled TV series and movies previously released on DVD. Launched in February 2013, “House of Cards” was among the first major series to release an entire season at once, a move that fed into viewers’ desire to devour several episodes at a time instead of having to wait a week to see another installment.

Many analysts now view “House of Cards” and Netflix’s other award-winning series released a few months later – “Orange is the New Black” – as turning points in the company’s evolution, similar to the impact “The Sopranos” and “Sex and the City” had for HBO. Netflix CEO Reed Hastings now regularly likens the company to the HBO of the Internet.

Just how many Netflix subscribers have watched “House of Cards” remains a mystery because the company has refused to reveal the viewership of any of its series. But this much is clear: “House of Cards” came along at a pivotal juncture for Netflix.

The Los Gatos, California, company was still recovering from a subscriber backlash triggered in mid-2011 by a dramatic increase in its prices and a bungled attempt to spin off its DVD-by-mail service. Undaunted, Netflix continued to commit billions of dollars to long-term licensing agreements with movie and TV studios while also spending heavily on an international expansion. Some analysts questioned whether the company could survive.

Wall Street’s doubts have dissipated, and Netflix’s service has become an entertainment staple around the world. Since “House of Cards” was released, Netflix’s stock has nearly tripled to about $480 while its Internet video service has grown subscribers by 24 million subscribers to 57 million. Half of those gains have come in the U.S.

The momentum emboldened Netflix last year to raise its monthly streaming prices by a $1 to $9. There was little blowback from customers this time. Netflix’s widening appeal may have also contributed to HBO’s decision to begin selling its channel as a separate Internet service later this year. HBO hasn’t yet announced its prices for the HBO Go service.

The next challenge for Netflix will be proving that it can consistently deliver series as good as “House of Cards,” which has received 22 Emmy nominations and won four awards so far, and “Orange Is The New Black,” which has collected three Emmy awards among its 12 nominations.

While some of Netflix’s other original programs, such as “Hemlock Grove” and “BoJack Horseman,” have attracted enthusiastic followings, they haven’t proven to be a subscriber drawing card like “House of Cards,” said Rosenblatt Securities analyst Martin Pyykkonen. “Netflix needs to get to the point where it’s showing three or four high-quality shows like `House of Cards” every quarter if it wants to retain subscribers,” he said.

‘Gone Girl’ delicious suburban noir

The predominant image throughout David Fincher’s films, from the uncovered horrors of “Se7en” to the Machiavellian maneuverings of “House of Cards,” has been a flashlight beam cutting through the dark.

In his latest, the Gillian Flynn adaptation “Gone Girl,” he shines it into the deepest depths of not a serial killer’s mind or a schizophrenic’s madness, but on a far more terrifying psychological minefield: Marriage. In “Gone Girl,” Fincher has crafted a portrait of a couple rivaled in toxicity only by “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” and one with just as much — if more subtle — roleplaying.

The results are a mixed bag of matrimony mayhem, but an engrossing, wonderfully wicked one. Despite its perspective-shifting, “Gone Girl” may be too male in its viewpoint. And the schematic setup of Flynn’s screenplay does sap some of its force. But in good times and bad, in sickness and in health, “Gone Girl” is delicious suburban noir.

It begins with Nick Dunne (Ben Affleck) caressing the head of his wife, Amy (Rosamund Pike), and wondering to himself, “What are you thinking?” It’s the film’s unsolvable mystery: the unknowingness of another, even one who shares your bed.

On a regular morning in North Carthage, Missouri, albeit one begun with an early drink of whiskey at Nick’s bar with his bartender twin sister, Margo (an excellent Carrie Coon as the movie’s voice of reason), Nick returns home to find Amy missing and scenes of a struggle. Even as she cheerfully pledges help, Detective Rhonda Boney (Kim Dickens) sticks post-it notes around the house, marking areas of suspicion.

As the investigation turns toward Nick, and the high-wattage glare of the TV media finds his concern unconvincing, we get an autopsy on the Dunnes’ marriage. In flashbacks narrated by Amy’s journal, she recalls their fairy tale beginnings and — despite earnest intentions to avoid becoming “that couple” — their gradual dissolution.

Nick is laid off from his magazine writing job. They move from New York to Missouri to be near his family. Amy, the cool New York daughter of a publicity-savvy literary couple who based their bestselling children’s book series “Amazing Amy” on her, recoils at her Midwest McMansion nightmare, finding herself wed to a videogame-playing frat boy who, after a loveless afternoon tryst, suggests the Outback for dinner. She seethes: “I drank canned beer and watched Adam Sandler movies,” and an ocean of empathy washes from Nick to her.

This is the mischievous game of the movie, which hopes to sway your sympathies with each twist in the story.

Their bland suburban house becomes a prison to Nick, its windows lit up with the strobe-light flashes of the swarming media. The manipulation of image, both in public opinion and in private relationships, shapes the story, with Tyler Perry (in a spectacular performance that ought to, by its own strength, incinerate his Madea costume) swooping in as the narrative-controlling defense attorney Tanner Bolt. When Nick pledges the truth will be his defense, Bolt grins with cynical perfection.

Pike, in the fullest performance of her career, struggles to make Amy more than an opaque femme fatale. But _ and it’s a big one _ she does lead the film to its staggering climax, a blood-curdling sex scene: the movie’s piece de resistance, the consummation of its noir nuptials.

Fincher’s sinister slickness and dimly-lit precision has sometimes been considered a double-edged sword, a complaint that strikes me as missing the point. Mastery isn’t a negative.

“Gone Girl” doesn’t give the director the material that the propulsive “The Social Network” did. But you can feel him — aided by the shadowy cinematography of Jeff Cronenweth and the creepy score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross — moving closer to the disturbed intimacies of Roman Polanski.

So, despite its imperfections, let us clink our glasses and throw rice on “Gone Girl.”

“Gone Girl,” a 20th Century Fox release, is rated R by the Motion Picture Association of America for “a scene of bloody violence, some strong sexual content/nudity, and language.” Running time: 145 minutes. Three stars out of four.

‘Game of Thrones’ earns 19 Emmy nominations

The sprawling and bloodthirsty saga “Game of Thrones,” defying the Emmy Awards’ grudging respect for such fantasy fare, emerged as the leader in the nominations announced Thursday with 19 bids, including best drama series.

Other top nominees included a pair of ambitious miniseries, “Fargo,” with 18 bids, and “American Horror Story: Coven,” with 17.

The AIDS drama “The Normal Heart” received 16 nominations, including best TV movie.

The meth kingpin tale “Breaking Bad” got 16 bids for its final season, including best drama and a best actor nod for star Bryan Cranston.

The 66th prime-time Emmy Awards ceremony will have big-screen star power to spare. This year’s Academy Awards best-actor winner Matthew McConaughey (“Dallas Buyers Club”) and nominee Chiwetel Ejiofor (“12 Years a Slave”) are both nominees for TV projects, as is past Oscar winner Julia Roberts.

In the competitive best-drama series category, “Game of Thrones” will compete with “Breaking Bad,” “Downton Abbey,” “House of Cards,” “Mad Men” and “True Detective.”

Whether HBO’s “Game of Thrones” can take home the top trophy is another question: Only one fantasy or sci-fi series, “Lost,” has ever captured it, according to Tom O’Neil, author of “The Emmys” and organizer of the Gold Derby awards site.

Snubbed in the category was “The Good Wife,” despite a season that was both critically acclaimed and gasp-inducing for the sudden, violent death of character Will Gardner (Josh Charles).

Netflix’s “House of Cards” which made a breakthrough last year as the first online series nominated for a major award, has the chance again to grab Emmy gold.

“Orange is the New Black,” also from Netflix, leaped that barrier on the flip side this time around with a bid for best comedy series, along with a nod for star Taylor Schilling.

Also competing for best comedy honors are “The Big Bang Theory,” “Louie,” “Silicon Valley,” “Veep,” and “Modern Family,” a four-time winner that has the chance to tie “Frasier” as the all-time winning sitcom with one more award.

“Orange is the New Black,” a prison-set hybrid “dramedy,” could have been entered in either the drama or comedy category, and the decision to go for the latter paid off. Not so for “Shameless,” a onetime drama contender that tried for better luck on the comedy side but failed to get a top bid.

Another category-buster is “True Detective,” the dark-hearted Southern drama that starred McConaughey and Woody Harrelson. It was entered in the series category although it had a close-ended story and its stars have indicated they don’t plan on returning for the show’s second season.

But the crime anthology qualifies as a series because of the “created by” credit given to Nic Pizzolatto by the Writers Guild of America, said John Leverence, the TV academy’s senior vice president for awards. That credit serves as a “marker” to help determine a program’s first-year Emmy categorization, which can be ambiguous, Leverence said.

McConaughey and Harrelson both will vie for best drama actor honors, along with four-time winner Cranston for “Breaking Bad,” Jon Hamm for “Mad Men,” Kevin Spacey for “House of Cards,” and Jeff Daniels for “The Newsroom,” who won the Emmy last year.

Nominees in the lead actress drama category are last year’s winner, “Homeland” star Claire Danes along with Lizzy Caplan for “Masters of Sex,” Michelle Dockery for “Downton Abbey,” Julianna Margulies for “The Good Wife,” Kerry Washington for “Scandal” and Robin Wright for “House of Cards.”

“I’m crazy grateful that the TV Academy has acknowledged our show in these ways,” Washington said in a statement, giving a shoutout to fellow “Scandal” nominees Joe Morton and Kate Burton. They were recognized in the guest actor and actress categories.

For comedy series, the lead actor nods went to Don Cheadle for “House of Lies,” Louis C.K. for “Louie,” Ricky Gervais for “Derek,” Matt LeBlanc for “Episodes,” William H. Macy for “Shameless” and Jim Parsons for “The Big Bang Theory.” Parsons won the Emmy last year.

Best actress comedy nominees besides Schilling were Lena Dunham for “Girls,” Edie Falco for “Nurse Jackie,” Melissa McCarthy for “Mike & Molly,” Amy Poehler for “Parks and Recreation” and last year’s winner, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, for “Veep.”

“This list of nominees would also be the list for the best dinner party in history,” “Girls” creator and star Dunham said in a statement, dubbing them “fierce and funny women.”

With a resurgence of so-called long-form drama, the TV academy separated the best movie and miniseries categories that had been combined for several years because of scant entries. The acting categories, however, remain a mix of the two.

In the miniseries category, “American Horror Story: Coven” and “Fargo,” a riff on the 1996 movie of the same name, will compete with “Bonnie & Clyde,” “Luther,” “Treme” and “The White Queen.”

Along with “The Normal Heart,” the TV movie nominees are “Killing Kennedy,” “Muhammad Ali’s Greatest Fight,” “Sherlock: His Last Vow (Masterpiece)” and “The Trip to Bountiful.”

Roberts is a supporting actress nominee for “The Normal Heart.” Ejiofor earned a bid for the miniseries “Dancing on the Edge.”

The 66th Primetime Emmy Awards will air Monday, Aug. 25, on NBC, with emcee Seth Meyers, the former “Saturday Night Live” player and new NBC late-night host. The ceremony, traditionally held on Sunday, was moved to avoid a conflict with NBC’s “Sunday Night Football” and with MTV’s Video Music Awards.

HBO received a leading 99 nominations, followed by CBS with 47; NBC, 46; FX Networks, 45; ABC, 37; PBS, 34; Showtime, 24, and Fox, 18.

Online

http://www.emmys.com