Netflix Movie of the Week #21: Frida

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After last year’s Oscar season, I was so sick of biopics I wanted to puke. But for every Unbroken, and American Sniper, there’s a film like Frida waiting just around the corner, or in this case, just around the Netflix instant streaming side-scrolling thing. Frida—as in Frida Kahlo—manages to hit that biographical sweet spot by being both surprisingly informative and hugely entertaining in its own right.

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Black Mass

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Black Mass is a film about impressions, though none but Depp’s “Whitey” Bulger are particularly good. I’m not just talking about the overall poor quality of the Boston accents in this film, particularly Cumberbatch, who despite his best effort, is unable to conceal his identity as a Brit for more than a few words at a time. Black Mass as a whole is a sleepy, overly self-serious impression of a Scorsese-style gangster flick, with neither the style nor substance it needs to tell the bizarre and fantastic story of Bulger’s dealings with the FBI. Instead, the film is a insipid slog through the events of Bulger’s life, and seems completely disinterested in making anything other than a regurgitation of the same material covered in other, better gangster films.

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High and Low Podcast: Christopher Nolan

Hello all, welcome to our new biweekly podcast focusing on our discussion of a new director every episode. We go over their highs and lows, dissecting their filmography all for you lovely people to listen too. This week we go over one of my favorite directors, Christopher Nolan.

Andrew’s Most Anticipated Film’s of 2015

Now that the summer blockbuster season has come to a close, it is only a matter of time before the Cannes winner and Oscar hopefully start cropping up in theaters. In anticipation for this, I have put together a list of some of my most anticipated films, and because I am writing for the internet, I have put my choices into a numbered list rather than write them out in no particular order. Links to all of these films can be found in the the comments section.

#6. The Lobster – Yorgos Lanthimos

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After receiving generally positive reviews, and even winning the Jury Prize during its stint at the Cannes Film Festival this year, The Lobster kicks off this list at number six. An absurdist comedy from the director of Dogtooth, The Lobster tells of a world where if you become single, you are rounded up and sent to a resort, where you have 45 days to fall in love with someone or you will be turned into an animal – though you do have the benefit of choosing which animal it is. The film stars Colin Farrell, Rachel Weisz, and John C. Reilly, in what promises to be one of the best dark comedies, or even comedies, of the year.

#5. The Danish Girl – Tom Hooper

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Though I will concede that in many ways, this film looks like more of an attempt to win Academy Awards than an actual film, I will watch literally anything Tom Hooper directs.  His films have such a grand theatricality to them, his style seems to run in stark opposition to the cinema-verite school of thought, and the result is tremendous. The Danish Girl stars last years Best Actor winner Eddie Redmayne in this biopic of the first man ever to undergo gender reassignment surgery.

#4. Pawn Sacrifice – Edward Zwick

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At the height of the Cold War, Tobey Maguire and Liev Schreiber face off as Bobby Fischer and Boris Spassky, the two best chess players in the world. The film seems to focus heavily on Fischer and his psyche, promising to dive into the complex yet mentally fragile man who was once the greatest Grand Master in the world. Hopefully, this marks a star turn for Maguire, where he can finally step up to the plate and become a viable star for similar prestige films.

#3. The Walk – Robert Zemeckis

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Cheesy and simple as they sometimes may be, I love Zemeckis films, and from the look of the trailer The Walk will be no exception. A narrative film alternative to Man on Wire, The Walk stars Joseph Gordon Levitt as Philippe Petit, the Frenchman who made global news by spending hours on a wire he set up between the twin towers of the World Trade Center. The trailer frames this film like it would a slick heist thriller, and I am certainly sold.

#2. The Revenant – Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu

With Birdman sitting pretty at the top of my favorite films of 2014, how could I not include Inarritu’s next film on this list. The trailer keeps many of the plot details intentionally hidden, but instead advertises a feeling tense beauty as Leonardo DiCaprio fights for his life across gorgeous American landscapes. Though I am keeping expectations reasonable as it will be hard to follow such a tremendous previous film, The Revenant will likely be another hit for Inarritu.

#1. Sicario – Denis Villeneuve

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Honestly there is nothing to say about this movie that hasn’t already been said. It looks like an incredibly intense and emotional thriller about the war on drug cartels in Mexico from a director who has already proved himself to be a tremendous filmmaker. Prisoners was a great film, but if Sicario delivers the film that the trailers promise, it could well be the best film of the year.

Famous Filmmaker : Forgotten Film | Francis Ford Coppola : The Cotton Club

If you are an admirer of Francis Ford Coppola’s work, watching The Cotton Club may be a strangely familiar experience. It hits all the beats one expects it to hit, and characters and even entire scenes appear on screen for what feels like a second time, even on your first viewing. There would be a strong argument that this film plagiarized directly from The Godfather if Coppola had not made both films. Iconic sequences such as the shooting of Corleone, and the newspaper montage scene that follows exist within this film in an almost copy and paste fashion. The films are about the same types of people, and feature many of the same central themes. The Cotton Club should just be a inferior rip off of The Godfather, but Coppola is such a deft filmmaker that is difficult to care that we have seen much of what this film has to offer before.

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Despite the similarities, there are reasons to watch this film instead of simply re-watching The Godfather. Coppola is a true master of lighting within his films, and The Cotton Club is among the best examples of this. This film draws heavily from Noir style lighting and framing, offering up some excellent shots of the central protagonist and others paralleled with long, well defined cast shadows. Coppola’s use of cast shadows from blinds, curtains, and various other materials on shots of the actors give this film a classical Hollywood feel, despite this being a film from the 80’s.

The Cotton Club centers around a Jazz club in Harlem, sharing the same name as the film, and tells intertwining stories relating to the club, though the film primarily focuses on local trumpet player Dixie Dwyer (Richard Gere). Dwyer’s life takes a sharp turn at the start of the film when he inadvertently saves the life of Dutch Schultz, a mob kingpin who takes Dwyer under his payroll to repay the favor. However, things become complicated when Dwyer becomes sexually involved with the Dutchman’s girlfriend. If this were all the film is about, it could be considered one of Coppola’s best works. Unfortunately, The Cotton Club is plagued by a seemingly endless number of subplots, ranging from Dwyer’s brother’s tradition to a life of crime, to separate stories related to race and class, as well as a romantic arch plot thrown in. It is a little hard to process everything at going on, but this is perhaps the only legitimate criticism I have of the film. The acting is all top notch, even though Diane Lane won a Golden Raspberry Award for her performance in the film – something that is seemly incomprehensible compared to the caliber of acting associated with contemporary winners of this honor. The Cotton Club isn’t quite a perfect film, though it is hard to compete with some of his other works. That said, it is still a very competent and enjoyable movie, well worth a watch for any fans of his other works.

Also, this film has Nick Cage in it. So what’s not to like about it? 

Rating: 4 out of 5

American Ultra

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Despite its marketing campaign, American Ultra is not a stoner film. Instead, the characters and ideas within the film appear to be more half-baked than anything else. Jesse Eisenberg stars as Mike Howell, your average under-achieving stoner, who spends his days getting high, working at a convenience store, and talking about a comic series he would like to write but never does. He lives with his girlfriend, Phoebe (Kristen Stewart), and while the two have decent on-screen chemistry, the fact that she is so interested in him is baffling to the audience until they are well into the film.

The premise is that Mike is a sleeper-agent for the US government but doesn’t know it, and when CIA officials decide to terminate the ‘ULTRA’ program he is part of, he must run around a small town with his girlfriend trying to survive with little more than instinct and whatever makeshift weapons he can cobble together. While this premise promises a slick, unlikely hero action-thriller, instead it just slogs along, regurgitating things that have been done better in previous films and adding new material to this Bourne-style premise, but still never seems to hit the mark. 

As the film starts, American Ultra establishes itself as part of a long tradition of lazy writing that often pervades bad movies. In rapid-fire succession, Ultra incorporates some of the worst impulses of bad screenwriters. The film is told in the form of a pointless frame narrative, immediately diving into an exposition dump in which Eisenberg explains his character’s backstory, motivations, and relationship with Stewart. He’s planning on proposing in Hawaii, but they miss the flight thanks to one of Mike’s anxiety attacks. On the drive home, he apologizes and explains that he thought he could overcome the anxiety attacks. This is the first of many times that characters feel the need to explain what’s happening on-screen directly to the audience, undercutting any effective moments in the film by assuming that we’re having trouble understanding the remarkably straight-forward story. This is all coupled with how insane all the characters act, but the movie takes itself too seriously for these actions to seem comedic.

While there is a lot to be critical of, there are a few small things to like here . The auxiliary cast is full of actors I enjoy–Tony Hale and Walton Goggins in particular–some of whom give decent performances or ham it up to the point of making this film almost entertaining. A few of the jokes in the film do hit, but this seems more due to Eisenberg’s acting chops than anything else. The one thing I did genuinely like about American Ultra is the cinematography. Though the action scenes are fairly boring, this movie is actually quite pretty in parts, and shows that at least a few people working on this film were determined to make it a good one.

Rating: 1.5 out of 5

Afterschool: Never Forget

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In all of our lives, we must constantly deal with the omnipresent question of what is real and what is fake. Never has this clash of realities been more relevant than with the dawning of the internet. It’s a tool that presents us with unlimited power and knowledge, but also in that comes the herculean task of deciphering it all. In the hands of a young person, this can be both crushing and mind altering at times.

Antonio Campos in his 2008 film, Afterschool, presents us with this struggle in the form of his protagonist Robert, a young boy sent off by his family to a wealthy New England boarding school. During his time there he preoccupies himself with what he calls “little clips of things that seem real”. In his mundane life, he sees these videos of violence and sex as a portal through which he can glimpse something authentic. In many ways, they alter his young mind’s understanding of what is real in the first place.

While filming some stock footage in one of his school’s hallways for his video class he discovers something far realer than he could have ever expected when he discovers the two most popular girls in school as they suffer a horrible reaction to rat poison laced cocaine and die right in front of his eyes, one bleeding out in his very arms.

This tragedy obviously causes quite a few ripples throughout the school. As much as everyone is torn up about their deaths, what truly seems to bother everyone is how lost they are in actually understanding and dealing with these girl’s untimely demise. Most of all the reaction of the school and, in particular, its principle, Mr. Burke, deftly played by Michael Stuhlbarg, seems most perplexing and cold.

Mr. Burke recognizing Robert’s position in the school’s video class gives him the responsibility of making the memorial video for the girls, in the hopes that it would help him deal with their graphic deaths. Along with this the school pushes everyone to go see the school counselor and talk about how they feel, then in most cases get handed a prescription for whatever pill will handle the symptoms of their internal traumas without actually addressing it. Robert as the one to first find the girls is sent to speak to Mr. Virgil. He is obviously quite out of sorts with the whole ordeal. He talks about the videos and the violent porn he watches and how he finds a reality in them that’s fascinating. An authenticity that’s missing from his own life where, as Mr. Virgil tells him, the school had been told about the dead girl’s drug problem and did nothing to help them, in the interest of keeping their rich parent’s money and support going.

Once Robert finished putting the video together for the memorial, he shows it to Mr. Burke who asks, “Was that serious Robert? That was the worst thing I’ve ever seen”. The video wasn’t quite what the school had hoped for. With no music, shaky camera work, and the raw sense of reality that Robert has been searching for through countless Youtube searches. It didn’t try to provide the false sugar coated narrative the school hoped everyone would guzzle down. Instead of idolizing these girls with cheap condolences and ignoring the elephant in the room that they are responsible for allowing things to escalate so far into tragedy, Robert’s video portrayed the reality of that elephant and all its unsightly blemishes. The school and those around him wouldn’t stand for this, though. They aren’t interested in the truth they’re just interested in the most convenient reality where they print “Never Forget” all over the memorial stage and paint it as just another forgettable tragedy. Nothing to learn here, just move on, take another pill. Robert does and so does everyone else, just like Mr. Burke and Virgil reminds Robert, “It’s everyone’s fault” “It’s no one’s fault”, forget.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5