Polter-Cow (spectralbovine) wrote,

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Double, Double, Netflix and Trouble

I said I'd clear out my Netflix and DVR, and I did indeed make a small dent in them! And then added more.

American Fable: Writer-director Anne Hamilton discussed her love of The Others on Switchblade Sisters, and her film intrigued me, and since it was easily available on Netflix, I gave it a shot. Gitty and her family own a farm in the Midwest in the eighties, a time when farmers aren't doing so well. Also not doing so well? The man she finds held hostage in the silo on her farm. (The man is Richard Schiff!!) He attempts to befriend her so he can get out, and she, being an eleven-year-old girl, goes along with it. I loved how strongly Hamilton keeps us in the child's POV, so that we have to piece together the main plot through the things she sees and overhears, being too young to understand. The film is beautifully shot and scored (by Gingger Shankar, who should definitely score more films), and it already have a lovely dreamlike quality to it, so I don't know why Hamilton felt the need to throw in a dash of magical realism to heighten that vibe, especially because it doesn't really land. Also the mother is pregnant for no apparent reason. Overall, even if it doesn't all quite work, it does tell a fairly compelling story with a satisfying ending, and the young actress at the center of the film is wonderful. B/B+

I Don't Feel at Home in This World Anymore: Melanie Lynskey thinks everyone is an asshole, and she's not far off, given that the film starts off with writer-director Macon Blair making a cameo as a man who spoils a book for her. And when someone breaks into her house and steals her shit, she's fucking pissed, so she teams up with Elijah Wood to get her shit back and punch this guy in the face or whatever. While it's easy to root for her quest and Elijah Wood is a hoot, I could never really get into this movie, which pokes at a fascinating kernel of truth regarding the rottenness of the world—at one point a character states, "Anyone can do anything if you let them"—but I'm not sure what it's trying to say about that. It's almost nihilistic in its viewpoint, as if black comedy is the only way to survive this world. It eventually loses the thread and turns into straight-up mayhem with a deliriously violent climax that made me wonder what all of this was supposed to be about. B

The Wailing: In the Korean village of Gokseong, people are suddenly becoming murderously violent and, let's face it, zombie-like. Bumbling cop Jong-goo is on the case! All the fingers are pointing to a mysterious Japanese stranger, and when his daughter becomes infected...it turns out this is not a simple zombie movie but some sort of possession scenario with evil spirits that need to be exorcised. Writer-director Na Hong-jin packs in a lot, but I especially appreciated how effectively he weaves in humor. It feels natural to the characters and makes them more human, which makes the threat to their safety more dire. I do think it could have been a bit shorter, but thankfully it does have a hell of a payoff—the last thirty minutes are tense as goddamn hell, a culmination of all that has come before, with plot twists and sinister revelations. Even though I didn't quite grasp what the hell said twists and revelations were explaining exactly, the impact was still there, there is a palpable change in tone. Overall, I wasn't as blown away as I hoped, but it was a good, harrowing journey. B/B+

Mother: After he gained international recognition for The Host but before he gained international success for Snowpiercer, Bong Joon-ho made Mother, in which a mother attempts to exonerate her mentally challenged son from the murder of a young girl. Since the police and everyone else think he did it, she investigates herself, and it's fairly entertaining, though what really carries the film is simply her unwavering love for and belief in her son. I got a bit lost in the middle as it wandered, but the conclusion definitely got me to pay attention. It's a strong, complicated ending, an excellent payoff. Overall, I wasn't as blown away as I hoped, but it was a good, atmospheric journey. B/B+

Psychokinesis: From Yeon Sang-ho, writer-director of the fantastic Train to Busan, comes this really good superhero movie that, like the zombie movie, focuses on a father-daughter relationship. Here a security guard gets telekinetic powers from meteor water (this is wisely never explored further than that ridiculous statement), and after some comical attempts to figure out what to do with them, he discovers what he was given them for: protect his estranged daughter and her companions from a ruthless construction company and their goons. Tonal imbalance seems to be common to Korean film, and while the movie can sometimes go wildly comic in one scene and deathly serious in the next, it doesn't break because of it. It's a superhero movie with refreshingly small stakes, that's entertaining throughout and builds to a climax that's exciting and emotionally affecting. There may even be some political undertones that come out in an intense conversation with the villainous Jung Yu-mi, who practically steals the movie with her coldhearted beauty. Overall, I wasn't as blown away as I hoped, but it was a good, fun journey. B+

Collateral: I signed up for Tom Cruise as a villain and what I got was TWO HOURS OF STRAIGHT TENSION. It's a simple premise—contract killer Tom Cruise forces cab driver Jamie Foxx to drive him to his hits for the night—and writer Stuart Beattie and director Michael Mann mine it for all it's worth, as nothing goes smoothly and Foxx finds more and more ways to try to fight back. It's extremely well crafted in that contrived fashion that relies on convenient timing and coincidences, but who cares when it keeps you on the edge of your seat the whole time. The interplay between Cruise and Foxx is taut—Foxx, like the audience, keeps wondering why Cruise doesn't just kill him and find another cab driver, but it's clear that Cruise likes him, and that's interesting, given the number of people we see him kill with no remorse throughout the film. I'm not sure that Cruise's character ever really comes together as more than a vague concept, but Foxx's character is extremely real and likable and really goes through a journey over the course of the night. It's a stylish thrill ride, clearly one of Mann's best. B+/A-

Disobedience: Rachel Weisz AND Rachel McAdams in one movie? Sign me up...for a less boring movie. Perhaps appropriately enough, this film about repressed lesbian lovers feels like it is repressing all feeling with every frame. Aggressively slow, it takes nearly an hour for the central relationship to manifest onscreen, and, sure, the steamy scenes between Weisz and McAdams certainly burble with repressed sexuality, but...there is not much else there, there. The film does not truly explore "the intersection of faith and sexuality," as the Netflix summary says; the climactic epiphany seemingly comes from out of nowhere. There's some occasionally lovely camerawork, but it's not enough to make up for the superficial plot. It was interesting to see a movie set in an Orthodox Jewish community (it almost felt like a foreign film, as it explained no customs for the unfamiliar audience), though the Orthodox Jews I know are much cooler and less...REPRESSION REPRESSION BIGOTRY SHUN SHUN SHUN than this. B

Assault on Precinct 13: First of all, THE TITLE IS A LIE!! This movie takes place at Precinct 9! And it takes its time getting people to Precinct 9, most notably a newly promoted cop and a Death Row-bound murderer who are forced to work together if they want to survive. The violence in this film is nasty and brutal, and it's all the creepier because the gang members are using silencers. The action comes in spurts, but each phase is so relentless it feels like a fucking zombie movie (unsurprisingly, Night of the Living Dead is a cited influence), and Carpenter comes up with several different clever ways of shooting them (my favorite being a collection of shots of inanimate objects jumping from bullets). It's got a badass secretary and a memorable score. Unlike some of the characters, I wasn't blown away, but I did appreciate the tension and action and character dynamics, even if they didn't all completely cohere into something brilliant for me. B+

What Happened to Monday: It seemed like no coincidence that Netflix released this film about a week after Orphan Black ended, as it definitely scratches that itch. It's not clones, though: it's literal sestras! Seven sisters sharing one identity in a dystopian future where siblings are outlawed find themselves in trouble when their deception is discovered. Together, they must fight for survival! The film occasionally explores the identity issues inherent in the premise—how do you construct your own identity if you must weekly be another, if your sisters' consequences become yours—but it's mostly lip service, as it's more interested in sci-fi/action business. Which is fine and fun! And deadly. It's got some decent twists and turns and a modicum of emotional resonance. Noomi Rapace is not called upon to go full Tatiana Maslany since the sisters are not radically distinct, but there are plenty of moments where she holds that marvelous illusion that makes you forget she's acting against herself. Solid but unexceptional, it's worth watching just for her performance(s). B+

Death Note: I loved the manga, and I've enjoyed Adam Wingard's previous films, so despite the bad reviews, I was interested in watching this, and...I liked it! In the manga, we have access to Light's internal monologue, but Wingard decides to essentially split Light into two characters, the conflicted side and the sociopathic side, represented by his girlfriend, Mia. While it's weird to soften Light himself, their dynamic does drive narrative conflict pretty strongly. The film is well directed, with interesting visuals and a great score that give it an appropriately dark mood. I especially love the way Wingard nearly always shoots Ryuk in the shadows; Willem Dafoe's vocal performance is wonderfully menacing. Lakeith Stanfield is also very good; he excels at playing offbeat but he gets to really go for it here. The film plays with its fucked-up premise in creative ways and delivers some nice twists. Maybe it's flawed, but I enjoyed it. B+

Lady Macbeth: Katherine is married to Alexander Lester as part of a land deal, like you do. He and his father are assholes, and so she begins an affair with Sebastian while her husband is away. Then things get...sticky. This film is a slow burn, with director William Oldroyd rarely moving the camera, choosing instead to exquisitely frame shots as if trapping Katherine in them. The few moments when the camera actively follows her feel so vibrant in comparison. Florence Pugh is mesmerizing in every single goddamn scene, and it's fascinating to watch her demeanor change from the first shot to the final one. This is a strong period piece, like Phantom Thread with more sex and murder. B+

Les Misérables: Having recently fallen in love with Les Mis the stage musical, I of course wanted to check out the Oscar-winning movie musical, despite most everyone telling me not to. And the number-one complaint—Tom Hooper's insistence on shooting ninety percent of the film in close-ups—frustrated the hell out of me. While it worked occasionally for solo numbers, most of the time, it meant he never captured the grandeur of the saga, never created visually interesting tableaux of an ensemble, never...put two characters in the same frame while they were literally singing to each other a foot apart?? As for the singing, it's true that Hugh Jackman and Russell Crowe aren't the strongest (Crowe is the worst in the cast, easily, but even he has a nice moment in "Stars"), but I liked most of the rest of the cast. It's hardly a substitute for seeing the musical onstage, but it generally gets..the job...done? I enjoyed Jackman's performance overall and thought Jean Valjean's story and character arc tracked really well, so that helped a lot (especially since Crowe wasn't matching him performance-wise either). B

To All the Boys I've Loved Before: In an August that brought us Crazy Rich Asians and Searching (and, as John Cho pointed out, The Meg), To All the Boys I've Loved Before gives much-needed Asian representation to the teen rom-com. Lara Jean Covey has a box of love letters to her five major crushes, and she hopes they never read them. GUESS WHAT HAPPENS. Except that's only the catalyst for the real story, where she starts a fake relationship with one of those crushes. GUESS WHAT HAPPENS. This movie hits pretty familiar tropes, but that predictability makes it feel endearingly comfortable rather than unoriginal, especially because the cast is ridiculously charming and director Susan Johnson keeps the film so lovely to look at you wish you were watching it in a movie theater. I loved the relationships between the sisters—all the supporting characters and their interactions with Lara Jean are great, really. I ended up relating to more of this movie than expected; it definitely hit some emotions in the last twenty minutes. B+

Les Diaboliques: A wife and mistress conspire to murder their husband/lover, who is an utter asshole and deserves to die, so more power to them. In a classic dynamic, one of them is very "uuuhhhhh oh deeeear" and the other is very "mwahahaha," but, hey, the deed gets done, and that's when the movie really takes off. I knew there was an infamous bathtub scene the way Psycho had an infamous shower scene, so it was pretty easy to guess what the movie was leading up to, though I couldn't figure out how it made any sense. Despite that, it was fun to watch the two women unravel (murderers' guilt is classic film fodder), and the gripping climax is wonderfully suspenseful. I fear this film was a victim of overhype, as I was hoping to be more blown away, but it's definitely one of those Best Hitchcock Films Hitchcock Never Made. B+

Martha Marcy May Marlene: Writer/director Sean Durkin and actor Elisabeth Olsen both make very strong debuts in this film about a woman who escapes a cult physically but not mentally. The title refers to various names Olsen's character takes, and it perfectly evokes the conflation and conflict of identities she has as she attempts to return to the real world after years of programming. Clever editing sends us back and forth, giving the sense that her past is never that far from her present, and the sudden shifts keep us constantly on our guard, just as unnerved as Martha. Durkin allows us to make many connections for ourselves, and Olsen's face tells the rest of the story. Things heat up in the past and the present and in the end they collide in an unexpectedly chilling way. B+

I Kill Giants: I love the graphic novel—it's near the top of my list of recommendations when introducing people to comics—so I really hoped the film adaptation would do it justice, and whew. Writer Joe Kelly faithfully adapts his own book, and director Anders Walter, while not capturing the manga-style visuals of the comic, mixes the real-world drama with the fantasy elements well (though I wish the CGI were JUST a bit better). I've discovered I don't always like that magical realist feel in movies, but perhaps because I already understood what was going on, I was more willing to accept the presentation of the giants and Barbara's insistence on their reality. But also Madison Wolfe is wonderful, clearly displaying the pain underneath her prickly exterior in the early scenes until, with the help of Zoe Saldana, she can bring that pain to the surface and express it. I also found her relationship with new friend Sydney Wade really touching (and complicated in the way kid friendships can be), and Imogen Poots gets some good scenes as the older sister trying to keep the family together. This movie aces the fucking Bechdel Test, as every major character is female and they're always talking to each other and almost never about a man. Kelly and Walter really nail what it's like to deal with The Big Issues as a kid, and even when the emotional beats could have come off as silliness, they land. Wolfe has to carry the entire movie on her shoulders, and she does, and I cried. B+/A-

Kung Fu Yoga: My mom kept insisting this movie was just like Indiana Jones, and it's so much like Indiana Jones that at one point Jackie Chan literally says, "I love Indiana Jones." Jackie Chan is a Chinese archaeologist looking for an ancient treasure, but so is Sonu Sood, a villain introduced with ominous music and a random zoom-out to a satellite. This movie is an unholy mess, poorly structured and paced and written and acted (Jackie Chan is betrayed at least twice and it doesn't seem to faze him, and his colleague Disha Patani just...smiles all the time for no reason), but between all the exposition (and there is a LOT of exposition), there are some entertaining action scenes incorporating martial arts battles and a ridiculous car chase that defies physics and also THERE IS A LION IN THE CAR FOR SOME REASON. The Chinese seem to think Indians love the FUCK out of yoga, there's so much yoga in this movie. And then the movie randomly ends with a Bollywood dance number. Seriously. B-

Nerve: While this movie was vaguely on my radar before, once I realized it was by the writer of A Simple Favor, I thought I'd check out this flick about an online game where "watchers" dare "players" to do increasingly risky tasks while filming themselves on their phones. Adapting Jeanne Ryan's novel, Jessica Sharzer uses this absurd premise to hang a predictable but satisfying character arc on Emma Roberts, a Life "watcher" whose Nerve "player" best friend goads her into joining the game herself to prove that she's not such a boring scaredy cat after all! Then she hooks up with Dave Franco and things get more interesting. Directors Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman (of Catfish and Paranormal Activity 3 and Paranormal Activity 4 fame) bring their docu-found-footage visual sensibilities to narrative fiction and, well, it's simultaneously TOO MUCH and SUPER EYE-ROLLY and...viscerally kinetic and engaging. This movie isn't boring to look at, I'll give it that. Suspension of disbelief erodes over time, and the game makes very little sense, but it does make you wonder just how implausible it is, given today's teens and their social media. The ending is higgledy-piggledy bullshit, but up until then, it's surprisingly strong as a film, and it's entertaining throughout. B+

Enemy: A history professor discovers a small-time actor who looks and sounds exactly like him. Subsequently, a small-time actor discovers a history professor who looks and sounds exactly like him. And...we're off to the races. Screenwriter Javier Gullón and director Denis Villeneuve craft a lean, taut ninety-minute psychological thriller with three distinct acts. The first half hour worried me, as the setup is mostly a lot of arty contextless scenes presumably BRIMMING WITH MEANING. Once the plot kicks off in the second half hour though, hoo boy, Jake Gyllenhaal and Jake Gyllenhaal do superb work aided by an increasingly unnerving score by Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans. And then in the third half hour, the film threatens to go entirely off the rails, as it becomes harder to tell the two of them apart, and you start to wonder where the hell this thing is headed. Suffice it to say that this is not a movie that builds to some sort of twins/clones/alternate dimensions reveal. It has far more on its mind than that. What that is, I'm still not entirely sure, but the surprising thing is how much that doesn't bother me. It's like a more coherent David Lynch film, with more grounding and a touch of surreality that feels more deliberate. For my sake, I was drawn to the inherent theme of identity and the existential crisis that results when you discover you are not the only version of you, but the film also introduces a theme of dictatorship/control and the repetition of history that must have some significance, and also, well, also there are spiders. And, uh, according to IMDB trivia: "The cast signed a confidentiality agreement that doesn't allow them to speak and/or explain to the press the meaning of spiders in the movie." B+/A-

The Double: An office drone discovers a new employee who looks and sounds exactly like him. Writer-director Richard Ayoade and co-writer Avi Korine deftly walk the line between comedy and thriller, leaning into the Brazil-esque absurdity of the premise while not discounting the personal anguish and existential crisis at the center of the film. It's shot like a serious noir film and scored with piercing strings, but also Wallace Shawn keeps calling the protagonist by the wrong name. The interplay between Jesse Eisenberg-from-Adventureland and Jesse Eisenberg-from-The Social Network is both hilarious and unnerving. While the basic plot of Doppelganger Usurpation is a fairly standard way to take this premise, I did enjoy how much fun Ayoade had with it, throwing in so many gratuitous references to doubling and copies (including a ridiculously cheesy sci-fi TV show). The script is perhaps too tidy in how it explicitly states themes and character arcs and how it resolves the plot by paying off obvious foreshadowing, buuuuuut I tend to like that kind of shit so it worked for me. This is a marvelous piece of work. B+/A-

Jackie: What an unexpectedly incredible movie. On the surface, this film is a biopic of Jacqueline Kennedy that focuses on her response to her husband's assassination. But my God, it is so much more than that. Screenwriter Noah Oppenheim uses this singular moment to explore the very nature of historical legacy and the truth of the stories we tell, the stories we tell that become the truth, and director Pablo Larraín intersperses stock footage into the film, juxtaposing truth and fiction. Like Eliza Hamilton before her, Jackie puts herself back in the narrative in order to control it, to ensure that the country remembers her husband—and her—the way she chooses. The narrative of the film is framed primarily by her telling the post-assassination story to a journalist, a story we see in flashbacks, but it uses two other moments as touchstones: Jackie's television special welcoming the country to the White House and the assassination itself. The beginning and the end of JFK's administration. Larraín keeps the camera focused on Jackie for almost the entire film, and Natalie Portman conveys a wealth of emotion in just her face. It's a moving portrait of grief, but also throughout all of this you get a very good picture of her as a person and what is important to her. Impeccably shot and utterly gripping from start to finish, this film fucking wrecked me. A-

Marrowbone: From the writer of The Orphanage, one of my favorite horror movies, comes Marrowbone, an...okay horror movie. Four British siblings stick together in a small house in 1968 rural America, having fled the country because of their father for some reason. Small complication, there's a ghost or something. I say "or something" because the movie does not lean too hard into this ghost, only occasionally trying to be scary or spooky, more concerned with the eldest sibling's relationship with Anya Taylor-Joy and her relationship with the lawyer who keeps hitting on her. The plot mainly focuses on these more human complications (like real estate!), but it's compelling enough because you're rooting for these cute little Marrowbone kids. Eventually secrets are revealed, and there's a bit of OH SHIT. Even if it doesn't completely work in the end, this collection of well-worn horror tropes holds together more than it doesn't. B/B+

Cam: Alice is a camgirl named Lola trying to break into the Top 50. She'll do whatever it takes (within limits), cultivating relationships with her followers and doing what they ask of her. And then one day she discovers she can't get into account...but someone who looks exactly like her is broadcasting instead. Her followers can't tell the difference. Screenwriter Isa Mazzei (a former camgirl herself, which both keeps this movie from being exploitative trash and makes it a fascinating behind-the-scenes look at the profession) and director Daniel Goldhaber spend a lot of time getting you invested in Alice (and Madeline Brewer is wonderful), so that when the doppelganger plot kicks off, you are in the same state of WTF as she is. What follows is a surreal nightmare that explores the nature of online identity, the way we craft a persona based on how others view us. I've seen two other doppelganger stories recently, and this was the first that made me feel the true existential horror of having your identity stolen, of questioning your entire reality and sense of self. The second half of this film is an exquisite symphony of tension, my stomach tight and my chest cold, tears streaming down my face afterward. Goldhaber and Mazzei manage to straddle the line between ambiguity and subtext and sheer visceral thrills so that the latter not only makes up for the former but actually do the work. They don't have to tell you what the metaphor is, what the allegory is (though, to be fair, they still do that a little) because you understand that the film is not supposed to be working on a literal real-world level. What a fucking rush. A-

Shirkers: In 1992, a teenage Sandi Tan and friends shot their passion project in Singapore, a serial killer road trip film called Shirkers, with their mentor/director Georges Cardona, a man of mysterious origins and unknown age. A man...who stole the footage and disappeared. What the fuck?? Twenty-five years later, the lost footage resurfaced, and Tan turned her childhood dream into a haunting documentary called Shirkers. Tan tells her story with both verve and sadness, the visual effects spicing up the footage and her flat narration really selling the recurring motif of ghosts, which can refer to the people involved, the film itself, or...film itself. I love how she places Shirkers and the whole experience in the context of film history, showing not only the movies that inspired it but then the movies in which she saw echoes of it...despite the fact that no one had ever seen it. There are a lot of layers to dissect here, including the fact that Tan hardly ever appears as an adult, though she does have the occasional moments of self-reflection. While Cardona and his betrayal do threaten to become the focal point of the film, it ends up becoming a meditation on the ways making art brings us together and tears us apart. B+

The Diary of a Teenage Girl: After really liking Can You Ever Forgive Me?, I wanted to check out Marielle Heller's debut film, which is a bit flashier and more upbeat, as it's based on a graphic novel and thus has some lovely animated sequences that spring from the heart of its cartoonist protagonist, the titular teenage girl. Bel Powley had sex today. Holy shit! That sex was with her mom's boyfriend. Holy shit. While the squickiness at the center of this story makes it hard to watch at times, the film treats it with nuance and gives Powley full agency at all times, especially when she begins to explore her sexuality elsewhere. It's honest and empathetic, a quality it does share with Can You Ever Forgive Me?, and as Our Heroine comes of age through her sexual awakening in the seventies, we're rooting for her. Sidenote: Kristen Wiig should really get more dramatic roles. B+

Next up: a smorgasboard of recommendations and Oscar prep!
Tags: family, making the grade, movies

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