Just us, the cameras, and those wonderful people out there in the dark...

Monday, October 31, 2016

Netflix Originals Marathon: I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House (2016)

* *

Director: Oz Perkins
Starring: Ruth Wilson

I think that I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House would likely make a good novel. It doesn't just have a literary vibe, it has a very specific Victorian Gothic feeling to it that makes it feel like an atmospheric throwback to a time when horror was more about leaving one feeling unsettled than about vivid and explicit depictions of gore. If I were reading I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House, I'd probably be pretty into it. A lot of what it's doing would work pretty well in a novel. As a film? Well, it's actually kind of boring, which is something that you should really never be able to say about a film that only runs for 87 minutes. While Oz Perkins' second feature is definitely big on atmosphere, there's just not a lot of payoff.

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Tales From the Black List: Dirty Grandpa (2016)


Director: Dan Mazer
Starring: Robert De Niro, Zac Efron

Released every year since 2005, the "Black List" is a list of the most widely liked unproduced screenplays floating around Hollywood. It's not a "best" list, per say, but rather a list of the screenplays that have garnered favorable reactions from the most people in the film industry. Among the films to make the list are Best Picture winners Spotlight, Argo, The King's Speech, and Slumdog Millionaire, as well as Best Picture nominees Django Unchained, The Social Network, There Will Be Blood, Juno, and The Queen, among others, and at least one Black List screenplay has been Oscar nominated every year since 2006. So, it's a fairly prestigious list that has included some of the films considered, and awarded as, the best of the best by the industry. It is also, however, a list that has included such ill-received films as Wild Hogs (14% on Rotten Tomatoes), Our Brand Is Crisis (35%), That's My Boy (20%), The Last Witch Hunter (16%), and Sex Tape (17%). So they certainly aren't all winners, which goes a long way to explaining how a film like Dirty Grandpa could have made the list despite being completely awful.

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Review: Zoolander 2 (2016)

* 1/2

Director: Ben Stiller
Starring: Ben Stiller, Owen Wilson, Penelope Cruz

As a wise man once said, "Sometimes dead is better." Sometimes, even if a movie is really funny, and even if it has gone on to become one of the defining pieces of pop culture of its era, its quotes instantly recognizable, its protagonist iconic, it's best to just leave it in that cultural moment and be happy with what you've got. Some movies are perfect just as they are, their endings the perfect cap to their stories, and even if those movies grow in popularity as the years go on, finding and expanding their audience, it's best to just let things be rather than try to recreate the magic more than a decade after the fact, when tastes have changed and the finger is no longer quite on the pulse. Anchorman is a great comedy. Anchorman: The Legend Continues? That's only okay. Zoolander is a perfectly funny movie. Zoolander 2? Hot garbage. Bad Santa better hope the third time's the charm.

Monday, October 24, 2016

Review: The Tribe (2014)

* * * *

Director: Myroslav Slaboshpytskyi
Starring: Grigoriy Fesenko

Movies started as a medium without voices. Not without sound, necessarily, as most films had at least a musical score to assist in setting the mood of the action on screen, and not without words, either, as intertitles were used to help move the stories along, but without the sound of the characters' voices. But even in the days of silent films there were filmmakers who used intertitles sparingly and were content to let the images do the talking for themselves. Once the movies started talking, we started to rely increasingly on dialogue to provide us with the sign posts to help guide us through a narrative, so the idea of a movie that doesn't use words at all may seem daunting, or even like an endurance test. Myroslav Slaboshptyskyi's The Tribe is a film set at a school for the deaf in which the dialogue occurs only through Ukrainian Sign Language, none of which is subtitled. To watch it requires that you fill in a certain amount of blanks in order to keep up with it, but Slaboshptyskyi is so good at conveying the story through images that The Tribe is a deeply rich and engrossing viewing experience even if you can't grasp everything that's happening down to its last nuance.

Saturday, October 22, 2016

21st Century Essentials: Beyond the Hills (2012)

Director: Cristian Mungiu
Starring: Cosmina Stratan, Cristina Flutur
Country: Romania

It’s no small feat to tell an even-handed account of a religious community that kills a young woman while in the process of trying to perform an exorcism on her, but that’s exactly what Cristian Mungiu does with Beyond the Hills. A villain would not be hard to find in this kind of story, but Mungiu avoids taking the easy road, taking a complex view that underscores how misguided and dangerous strict adherence to a narrow worldview can be and finding a way to have some degree of compassion for everyone involved. Knowing that what unfolds is based on an actual incident that occurred in 2005, and which was fictionalized in the novels “Deadly Confession” and “Judges’ Book” by Tatiana Niculescu Bran, which together form the basis of the film’s screenplay, Beyond the Hills can be a difficult watch, but it’s a deeply engrossing film that sticks with you.

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Ten Years Later... Flags of Our Fathers (2006)

Director: Clint Eastwood
Starring: Ryan Phillippe, Adam Beach, Jesse Bradford

Few filmmakers have been as tireless as Clint Eastwood, having directed 35 feature films in the last 45 years and easily qualifying as having made one of the most successful transitions from actor to director. In that time he's made some great movies, but he's never been as ambitious as he was when he decided to tackle the story of the Battle of Iwo Jima over the course of two films in order to explore the perspective from each side of the conflict. At the time of its production Flags of Our Fathers must have seemed like a sure thing - so sure that the studio was willing to shell out the extra money to make Letters from Iwo Jima even though that film, regardless of quality, was bound to lose money in the domestic market by virtue of not being in English and not being about the American side of the conflict - a film that would hit that sweet spot where prestige meets profit. Yet when all was said and done, Flags of Our Fathers only ended up with 2 Oscar nominations (to Letters from Iwo Jima's 4) and would fail rather badly at the box office, bringing in only $33 million domestically and $65 million worldwide against a budget of $90 million and becoming one of Eastwood's least financially successful films as a director. In hindsight, it's easy to understand why that happened; although it has some of the hallmarks of the patriotism stirring, "rah rah" kind of war movie, it's doing something a lot more complicated than that and a lot more critical.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Review: The Girl on the Train (2016)

* * 1/2

Director: Tate Taylor
Starring: Emily Blunt

Back in the day, when the "erotic thriller" was a staple of Hollywood's annual output, there was many a story that turned on "crazy bitches" and the poor men whose errant libidos placed them in those women's sights. In those narratives the woman, who appears at first attractive and sexually available and then reveals herself to be violently unstable, becomes a thorn in the side of a good man who made a mistake and who is redeemed for his misdeeds by being targeted by the woman, while the woman is typically punished with death. In these stories the woman is always crazy, her wrath unprovoked, the man a victim. The Girl on the Train is a story told from the point of view of the "crazy bitch," who maybe isn't so crazy, whose wrath maybe isn't so unprovoked, whose "victims" maybe aren't so innocent after all. If only the movie were a little bit better, this would make for a refreshing change of pace. But, hey, great performance from Emily Blunt nevertheless.

Monday, October 17, 2016

Netflix Recommends... All Good Things (2010)

* * *

Director: Andrew Jerecki
Starring: Ryan Gosling, Kirsten Dunst

It says a lot about a person if they can watch a film based on events of their own life which depict them as weak-willed, mentally unstable, a spousal abuser, the murderer of two people and the instigator of the murder of a third, and think, "I find this portrayal very flattering." Maybe it's just that being played by Ryan Gosling goes a long way. The story presented by All Good Things, which is a "names have been changed" version of the life of Robert Durst, is odd enough as it is. It's even odder when you factor in that Durst's enjoyment of the film prompted him to reach out to director Andrew Jerecki and agree to be interviewed, which in turn resulted in the television miniseries The Jinx, which in turn resulted in Durst being arrested and charged with one of the murders depicted in this film. Life is always so much stranger than fiction.

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Review: 13th (2016)

* * * *

Director: Ava DuVernay

Words matter, which is part of the reason why the last several months have been so infuriating, as so many people with political power and media platforms have refused to call a spade a spade as a man who has built his campaign around racist policies and has explicitly encouraged racially charged violence at his rallies, and implicitly encouraged it at poling stations, runs for President. In an effort to avoid the accusation of "liberal bias," the media has helped cultivate the idea that the two major candidates are equally legitimate as candidates, even though one is basically just a politician - someone that you might agree with or might not, but who at least seems to understand and accept the limitations of power in a democracy - and the other is an insane megalomaniac who wants to curtail the freedom of the press, imprison his political rivals, outlaw a religion he doesn't like, and literally enclose his country inside a wall. Up until a week ago, when the tipping point was apparently reached, finally allowing all bets to be off, even the media outlets calling out the Republican nominee had largely avoided coming right out and calling this what it is, preferring to use terms like "dog whistle" rather than simply say he's racist. Well, he's racist. He's racist in a way that would have given Strom Thurmond pause, and that dude was fucking racist. In this bizarro world of pulling punches, Ava DuVernay's 13th is a breath of fresh air for saying exactly what it thinks. Bracing, thought provoking, and urgent, 13th isn't just one of the most important films of the year, it's one of the best.

Saturday, October 15, 2016

Review: The Dressmaker (2016)

* * * 1/2

Director: Jocelyn Moorhouse
Starring: Kate Winslet

If you think that they don't make 'em like they used to anymore, then you've never seen Kate Winslet in The Dressmaker, vamping like Rita Hayworth, snarling like Bette Davis (perhaps the only actress who could have made more of her character's first line, "I'm back, you bastards."), and mixing strength and vulnerability like Vivien Leigh. But while it sometimes feels like a cross between Bad Day at Black Rock and Johnny Guitar, it wouldn't really be accurate to call the film, an adaptation of the novel of the same name by Rosalie Ham, a throwback to a different era. It is very much its own creature, one which defies easy classification, and one which is perhaps either the kind of movie that you embrace completely, or whose charms just completely escape you. It's an oddball, to be sure, but it's glorious in its weirdness.

Sunday, October 9, 2016

Review: Central Intelligence (2016)

* * 1/2

Director: Rawson Marshall Thurber
Starring: Kevin Hart, Dwayne Johnson

Central Intelligence looks like it was a lot of fun to make. I'm not sure it's ever quite as much fun to watch, but I'm glad that some millionaires got to have a good time. Though the film is sometimes quite funny, it's also strangely inert given the high volume of action sequences spread throughout, and it inspired nothing more in me than indifference. Though indifference is probably better than massive disappointment, which is what I would have felt had I realized beforehand that its director, Rawson Marshall Thurber, is also the director of Dodgeball, a movie as silly as it is funny and had the benefit of Vince Vaughan at the height of his powers. Central Intelligence has the benefit of Dwayne Johnson and Kevin Hart at the height of their powers, but somehow never makes as much of them as it could. Maybe next time will be better, and there certainly will be a next time given that Central Intelligence made a whole lot of money during the summer when just about nothing seemed to make quite enough money.

Saturday, October 8, 2016

21st Century Essentials: Adaptation (2002)

Director: Spike Jonze
Starring: Nicolas Cage, Meryl Streep, Chris Cooper
Country: United States

Few films have ever danced closer to the edge than Adaptation, Charlie Kaufman's dramatization of the impossible task of adapting Susan Orlean's "The Orchid Thief" for the screen, as told by Spike Jonze. In addition to its daring gambit of taking characters based on real people, who share the same names as those real people (real people who could have declined permission for the portrayal), and having them straight up try to murder two people (and succeeding in one case), it also runs the very real risk of disappearing up its own ass as it as it reflects on, dissects, and makes a jest of the creative process. At once an intimate story about the struggle to create itself, and an expansive story that's about everything, really, Adaptation is one of the most interesting and creatively breathtaking films of the last 16 years, confirming (if any further confirmation was truly needed) that Charlie Kaufman's brain is one of the most fascinating places on Earth.

Monday, October 3, 2016

Review: Amanda Knox (2016)

* * *

Director: Rod Blackhurst, Brian McGinn

"We have here this beautiful, picturesque hilltop town in the middle of Italy. It was a particularly gruesome murder, throat slit, semi-naked, blood everywhere. I mean, what more do you want in a story?" That question, posed by journalist Nick Pisa (who somehow and effortlessly manages to emerge from this documentary as the most odious person in this story, which feels like an accomplishment in a perverse sort of way), finds its answer later in the film, when Pisa notes that the story also had two attractive young women and a hint of sex. "Girl on girl" crime, is how he puts it. That's what sells papers. Though Rod Blackhurst and Brian McGinn's Amanda Knox is being advertised as Knox's story in her own words, the documentary isn't really about Amanda Knox the person, nor is it ultimately about the murder of Meredith Kercher. It's more about the idea of "Amanda Knox," a hot commodity for a frenzied media dying to tell a story that combined murder, sex, and an American abroad. Whether you believe that Knox has gotten away with murder or that she was unfairly persecuted, Amanda Knox is a fascinating look at how narratives are shaped for the public and how fact can become so knotted up with rumor that they can seem impossible to separate.

Sunday, October 2, 2016

Review: City 40 (2016)

* * *

Director: Samira Goetschel

Here's the premise: there's a city that is closed to outsiders and has, historically, been kept off of maps by the government. For generations people have lived and worked inside of its enclosures, their work (and lives) a carefully guarded state secret. For decades they were provided access to goods and amenities that the people living outside the city could only dream of, the only downside being that they're all basically guaranteed to either end up with cancer themselves or to lose most of their family to same. It sounds like science fiction. It's the reality of the place codenamed "City 40," home of the Soviet nuclear weapons programme since 1945 and only designated as a town, and granted the name "Ozyorsk," in 1994, though it remains closed to this day. It's a place that non-residents can only enter with special permission from Russia's secret police, and in which filming is prohibited. But, where there's a will, there's a way, as Samira Goetschel's documentary City 40 proves.