Friday, August 17, 2012

Netflix Nuggets #2

I'm back with another smattering of reviews for another smattering of titles from Netflix! Some you might be familiar with, others you may have never heard of. But that's precisely what this blog is here for. Enjoy!


With the sustained presence of superhero movies in theaters lately, its almost hard to imagine a time when comic book adaptations were virtually non-existent. In the 80s and early 90s, the few superhero movies that had made waves financially and critically were by far the exception rather than the rule. But with the popularity of superheroes and comic book adaptations on screen rising to prominence comes the added opportunity to explore new facets of that mythology. Enter Griff the Invisible, an Australian film about an office grunt named Griff (Ryan Kwanten) who moonlights as a masked vigilante. His life changes when he meets a girl named Melody (Maeve Dermody) who seems to share his non-conventional view of the world at large. It sounds all-too familiar at first, but the film soon makes clear that this isn't another comic book movie. Bumping up against the nature of reality itself, Griff the Invisible asks the audience to question - right along with the film - the merit of what it means to live in the "real world." The film shows us how Griff sees himself; the romantically idealized version of his costume is muscled and fitted with numerous gadgets. But when we get a glimpse of him from another character's perspective we see that his suit is - in the "real world" - an ill-fitted collection of custom fabrics and plastics one might find on the lesser end of a cosplay contest. But again, the film doesn't seem overly concerned with forcing the main character or the audience to validate one perception over the other. Instead, we're left to determine for ourselves which reality is more "real," and at the end of the whole affair I didn't feel existentially confounded or befuddled. For all its sensible ambiguity, Griff the Invisible is a surprisingly accessible commentary on life and love and the nature of reality, with a few laughs thrown in for good measure.


The plot of Melancholia isn't complicated. The implications of some of its themes, on the other hand, are incredibly profound. The film primarily charts the disintegrating relationship between two sisters. Justine (Kirsten Dunst) is a newlywed who clearly suffers from severe bouts of depression. Her sister Claire (Charlotte Gainbourg) is the more sensible and grounded of the two - at least at first. Chronicling Justine's wedding reception and the day after, the film delicately paints a portrait of a family decaying from within. Justine's depression is a source of tension for several of the principle family members, and the passive aggressive behaviors exchanged amongst the cast (which includes John Hurt, Kiefer Sutherland, Stellan Skarsgard, and others) are rather difficult to watch. Underpinning the tension within the family is the fact that a rogue planet is heading for Earth. Some fear it will destroy us, others believe it will pass Earth by. The film states quite early on that Earth will be destroyed by the rogue planet, aptly named Melancholia, and the rest of the film plays out as more of a character study of minds and souls in crisis. Melancholia is a beautiful film, if an incredibly depressing one. Conveying the tepid attitudes of its primary character beautifully, the film itself evinces depression and melancholy with only a measure of subtlety. The symbolism of the film isn't particularly hard to decipher, and the opening images feature a high frame rate slow motion that almost makes the images displayed appear as a painting on screen - accompanied by the overture to Wagner's Tristan und Isolde. I wouldn't recommend watching Melancholia if you're in a good mood, because it's likely to sour it a bit. But if you find yourself in a place of placidity and emotional withdrawal, you might find that Melancholia resonates brilliantly with such a mood. Regardless of how you might choose to view it, there's no denying the inherent beauty of Lars Von Trier's ponderous piece.


Remember Back to the Future? Of course you do, because it's awesome. Well, in the wake of that movie's subsequent success another, somewhat lesser-known piece involving time travel was released: Peggy Sue Got Married. Peggy Sue (Kathleen Turner) is a divorcee whose life seems but a shadow of the dreams she held as a young girl. At her high school's 25 year reunion, she collapses inexplicably only to wake up a few decades back, once again a high school student in 1960. The film follows her as she weighs in on the relationships and choices she made growing up - wondering how she'll seize the opportunity to change her life. There's no science-y related mumbo-jumbo to go along with this time-traveler's tale, but there's a great deal of charm and laughs in Francis Ford Coppola's Peggy Sue Got Married. Nicolas Cage plays Peggy Sue's future husband/boyfriend in high school Walter, and he hilariously affects a gawky teenage posture and somewhat squeaky voice. A handful of familiar faces populate the supporting cast, including Jim Carrey as the school jokester (what else?), Kevin J. O'Connor as the brooding but poetic bad boy, and a 14-year old Sofia Coppola as Peggy's younger sister. Much like Back to the Future, the movie enjoys showcasing its retro sensibilities with a vintage soundtrack, classic cars, and classic clothing. But where it differs from Back to the Future is in its more serious tone. Peggy Sue's struggle to determine if she should continue her relationship with Walter, knowing he will be unfaithful and eventually break her heart, isn't glossed over. And the ultimate implications of her final decision aren't shied away from either. But that's tempered brilliantly by some well-placed laughs and an ultimately uplifting ending. And while this certainly isn't one of Cage's more insane performances, it is still on the list of what makes Cage such a curiously compelling actor to watch. Peggy Sue Got Married isn't quite on par with its "sister film" Back to the Future - though they both share undeniable similarities. But for what it's worth, Peggy Sue is still a delightfully nostalgic jaunt back to two eras: 80s movie-making and early 60s vintage Americana.


Every now and again a movie will steal a fantastic title that doesn't really represent what the movie is about. Primal Fear, though an engaging thriller, is just such a film. While the title (and even poster) might give you the impression that this movie is some kind of supernatural and atmospheric horror flick, it is instead a court room drama. Martin Vail (Richard Gere) is the kind of lawyer that lawyer jokes are made about. His moral compass is pretty obviously broken, as a handful of expositional conversations expose him as a lawyer famous for "putting the victims on trial" and getting well-funded clients off on technicalities. But when an altar boy named Aaron Stampler (Edward Norton) is accused of murdering an archbishop, with a near-overwhelming pile of circumstantial evidence implicating him, Vail decides to take the case pro-bono because he genuinely believes in Stampler's innocence.
I love courtroom drama films. I'm not sure what exactly it is about this cinematic subgenre that rarely fails to engross me but I was drawn to this film on those merits alone. Fortunately there's a good deal more to it than the usual examination/cross-examination antics that populate these films; including one of the best performances of Edward Norton's career. Laura Linney also works in a solid performance as the prosecuting attorney and a former lover of Martin Vail's, further complicating interpersonal relations within the film. Primal Fear isn't likely to keep you on the edge of your seat, it's not the kind of harrowing thriller that involves chase scenes or noir lighting techniques. But its well paced and makes its way around a few surprising twists during its run time, resulting in a solid entry in the courtroom drama/thriller subgenre.


Looking for a heartwarming, feel-good romantic comedy from France? Something with which to follow up Amelie perhaps? Look no further than Romantics Anonymous, a quirky little piece that follows the budding romance between a shy but talented chocolatier named Angelique(Isabelle Carre) and her equally shy boss Jean-Rene Van Den Hugde (Benoit Poelvoorde). I almost didn't want to use the word "quirky" in the previous sentence, because that word has so indelibly become linked with a very specific kind of awkward indie comedy, or just with Zooey Deschanel. But here, there's an irresistible sincerity to the film's quirkiness that transcends Hollywood tropes. It's not just because the film is French; the principle characters are both undeniably charming. While their awkward romance encounters numerous pitfalls along the way, some profoundly wince-inducing, the movie never resorts to gags or gimmicks to get its laughs. Instead, memories of our own romantic misadventures are called to mind with a wistful nostalgia. Throughout the film, the French version of "I Have Confidence" from The Sound of Music permeates the soundtrack and in one brilliant moment, that scene is reconstructed shot-for-shot with Angelique. After watching this delightful little film I did some reading up and found that the Romantics Anonymous meetings that the principle characters attend is an actual organization that the two leads often frequent. That doesn't come as a bit of a surprise given how genuine their performances are and further adds another layer sincerity to an already disarmingly honest film. Feel-good foreign cinema really doesn't get much better than this, folks.


Martin Brest is known for a few things. The first one has to be that he was a favorite of bullies and name-callers growing up for his familial surname. The second is that his last film - thus far - was unforgivably bad. It starred Ben Affleck and Jennifer Lopez and if you don't recognize it from that clue then thank your lucky stars. The third is that before he torpedoed his career he made two romantic dramas that shared three things in common: 1) They were pretty good. 2) They were both scored, beautifully, by Thomas Newman. 3) They were both over 2-and-a-half hours long. One was Meet Joe Black, the other was Scent of a Woman. For some reason these two films almost feel like companion titles to me though they share little in common, and incidentally Meet Joe Black is on Netflix as well at the moment. But getting back to the task at hand, Scent of a Woman follows a young man named Charlie Simms (Chris O'Donnell with an undeniably 90s haircut) who takes a weekend job working as a companion to a blind and foul-tempered retired Army Lt. Col. named Frank Slade, played by Al Pacino. Frank is gruff and standoffish and generally the kind of curmudgeon needed as a foil to Charlie's youthful optimism. But over the course of the weekend Charlie begins to understand Frank and his seemingly unforgiving ways, and in turn Frank develops a subtle appreciation for his youthful companion. It's not a wholly unfamiliar plot by any stretch of the imagination and Brest plays all the expected notes emotionally. But there are some great quotes from Pacino and one or two tear-jerker moments that elevate this movie above the kind of tropes that seem fit for a 'heavy episode' in a conventional TV sitcom. A much  younger Philip Seymour Hoffman also makes an appearance as one of Charlie's prep school classmates. The film wraps up with Pacino giving a rousing and profoundly stirring speech about the nature of character and integrity to Charlie's prep school and while, again, the cliche is worn out and tired as ever - I still couldn't resist the swelling of the orchestra and the force of Pacino's voice. It wobbles on the border of kitschy at times, but for all of that it's still a wonderfully uplifting piece that - at 157 minutes - unfolds slowly, but surely.


Here be the first of Baz Luhrmann's famous "Red Curtain Trilogy," so named not because they share a common narrative but because each film (Strictly Ballroom, Romeo+Juliet, and Moulin Rouge!) each open with the raising of a red curtain. Strictly Ballroom opens on a faux-documentary style vignette into the world of competitive ballroom dancing. A collection of talking head interviews relates the story of how talented hoofer Scott Hastings (Paul Mercurio) began performing his own flashy dance moves during a competition, costing him and his partner Liz Holt (Gia Carides) the victory. The movie then reverts back into a typical narrative style, albeit with Baz's signature low angle closeups and Bollywood-like cinematic choreography. Scott is soon approached by another aspiring dancer named Fran (Tara Morice) who convinces him to teach her "his way" of dancing so that they can compete in the Pan-Pacific competition together - only weeks away. What follows is an enjoyable, if predictable, romantically comedic romp through the world of competitive dancing, learning to follow your heart, Cyndi Lauper's "Time after Time", and a host of charmingly lampooned 'ugly duckling' and 'Cinderella' stereotypes. Baz's directorial debut showcases an already insightful cinematic perspective, and numerous moments in the film play out like practice for techniques and choreography he would later exploit in Moulin Rouge! This 1992 romantic comedy isn't nearly as frenetic or ultimately intense as 2001's Moulin Rouge!, but his signature style is very much apparent in nearly every frame. Being a fan of Luhrmann's work, this was a huge plus for me and suited the production design of the film itself marvelously. I don't know much about dancing at all, but this is the kind of film that transcends personal experience with its subject matter to be enjoyable and heartwarming regardless. Any fan of Luhrmann, romantic comedies, or dancing in general would be well served to add this to their "Must See" list.

That concludes Netflix Nuggets #2! Stay tuned for a soon-to-come special entry in the Netflix Nuggets series: TV Edition.