Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Netflix Nuggets #3

We've recently had a Documentary Edition and a Television Edition of Netflix Nuggets, but that's hardly meant to imply I haven't been keeping up with the good ol' standard narrative movies too. I've once again compiled another small list of "regular movie" titles I've found whilst cruising the digital aisles of Netflix, which you can find below. Enjoy!

(And by all means, if there are any titles you'd like to get my thoughts on, feel free to leave suggestions in the Comments section. I welcome any and all constructive input!)


I'm a sucker for a good ensemble cast movie, especially when it comes to comedies. Usually you can tell everyone had a good time on set working with each other by how well their onscreen chemistry is conveyed, and the more stars in a single flick the higher the chance one of your favorites is in the mix. It was these qualities that initially drew me to Butter; namely the presence of Hugh Jackman (as a cowboy hat-wearing car salesman, no less), Olivia Wilde, and Rob Corddry. The story follows two primary protagonists: Laura Pickler (Jennifer Garner), the wife of famed butter sculptor Bob Pickler (Ty Burrell), and Destiny, (Yara Shahidi) an orphan who has spent most of her life moving from foster home to foster home. When Destiny decides she wants to enter the Butter Sculpting Competition that Bob has dominated year after year, Bob decides he's ready to hang up his tools and let someone else have the spotlight. But Laura isn't ready to fade into the background, and thus begins an occasionally funny, occasionally silly, occasionally meandering tale of intrigue and social politics. Butter plays on a number of stereotypes for laughs; namely that of aggressively conservative American housewives. Garner plays the role with sufficient stuffiness, but some of the jokes fall a bit flat before all is said and done. The rest of the cast is entertaining enough, but not as laugh-out-loud hilarious as I was expecting. Wilde plays an excessively shallow stripper whose primary mode of transportation is a bicycle and again, the concept is great; watching her attempt to pedal away in a huff wearing heels and revealing clothing. But it wears out its welcome all too soon. The saving grace of the movie is Yara Shahidi, who is more or less the "straight man" to the other characters' more wacky tendencies. She's not going to go up for any Oscars, but she's a good child actor and she plays her role convincingly well. Overall Butter is entertaining enough, and squeaked by with an acceptable rating in my book; but it really could have and should have been much better. It's funny in places, and I laughed once or twice; but despite the very definite plot structure the whole movie felt a little lackluster - as though it had no sense of direction or purpose.


Dark Horse was a movie I queued up on a total whim - and a little bit because it had Selma Blair. Abe (Jordan Gelber) is a 30-something-year-old man with a pretty bad case of arrested development. He lives at home, he works for his Dad's company, he spends most of his money on collectible action figures and toys; he's every "failure to launch" cliche rolled into one. He meets Miranda (Selma Blair) at a wedding at the beginning of the film and commences pursuing her romantically, in the process discovering that she's also living at home and struggling with some failure-to-launch of her own. An unlikely relationship develops between the two, and in a desperate bid to give her life some sense of purpose she accepts Abe's proposal of marriage. From there, this already-strange film takes an even stranger turn as some of the layers of symbolism and meaning embedded within begin to unravel. Dark Horse is a head-scratcher; at least it was for me. Abe is incredibly unlikeable as a character; he has a short temper, his hobbies are puerile to the point of pathetic, and his delusions about himself are undeniably visible. Miranda is equally inscrutable as it's unclear if she's clinically depressed or just sad all the time. And while it's possible to have unlikeable characters be compelling, it's a fine line to tread and it's hard to say whether or not Dark Horse pulls this off. This is largely due to the unexpectedly avant-garde twist the film employs within its final half hour or so. It goes to great lengths to lay out a map of its meaning and symbolism, so maybe it's just that I didn't find anything to relate to. But I was overwhelmed by a relative apathy by the film's conclusion; an apathy accented by a kind of hopelessness. I'm not entirely sure how to categorize Dark Horse; it's not strictly a comedy or a drama or a black comedy. It's more akin to a mashup between the Coen Brothers and David Lynch - both of whom I greatly admire. I didn't really like this movie, but it has all the earmarks of a cult classic so I won't go so far as to say it's not worth watching. But personally, I was neither wholly compelled nor wholly repelled by the experience.


Agatha Christie's And Then There Were None (or Ten Little Indians...after it was renamed from a much more offensive title) was a seminal work of mystery literature, and has gone on to directly or indirectly influence thrillers and mystery books and films alike ever since its release in 1939. Identity, while not a direct adaptation of Christie's work, nevertheless uses some of the narrative devices employed by that book. It's a fairly simple setup: ten strangers arrive at a motel in the middle of nowhere during a rain storm that's cut them off from their respective destinations. Stranded, the various characters begin getting picked off slowly by a deranged murderer and of course begin to panic - each suspecting the other of guilt in turn. As you can expect, there's a big twist that ties the whole thing together - with a second twist closing out the film just before the credits. Both twists are fairly predictable, though you probably won't see them coming too far out. John Cusack takes the lead as limo driver/former cop Ed Dakota. He does an admirable job as a concerned by relatively tight-lipped character, appropriately similar enough to the anti-hero detectives types of hard-boiled crime novels. Amanda Peet plays Paris, a hooker attempting to restart her life far away from her former life in Vegas. Ray Liotta plays a cop (again) named Sam Rhodes, who seems to be hiding a pretty damning secret of some kind - but of course I'm not about to spill the beans on that front. I can't say too much more about the movie without giving something away, but overall it's a good thriller with some psychological horror elements thrown in for effect. Since it takes place at a lonely motel and involves the murder of some of its occupants, it reminded me of Psycho in several places. There are one or two grisly moments that move the film from basic thriller into more slasher movie territory, but they're few and far enough between that I wouldn't go so far as to call Identity a horror movie. Again, the twists don't take too long to unravel, so Identity won't have you on the very edge of your seat the whole time. But it's a solid entry in the genre and for any diehard fans of mystery thrillers it's a must see.


As I've mentioned before, in a few places, B-grade cinema and/or the overall grindhouse aesthetic has made a solid comeback in recent memory. We're sophisticated enough as an audience (for the most part) to need a foray into ironic movies replete with self-deprecation every once in awhile. Personally, it's a trend I enjoy - regardless of how it's presented or where it comes up. While Iron Sky was actually a largely crowd-sourced film and not technically part of the "Hollywood machine," it still fits into this ironically ridiculous tradition I've come to enjoy so much. The concept is as ridiculous as you could possibly conceive: after being defeated in WWII, the Nazis retreated to the dark side of the moon to rebuild their defenses and regroup for an all out assault on planet Earth in the future. The movie more or less opens on the events that lead into their attempted return and predictably works its way into an epic space battle before conclusion. The overall idea is silly enough, but there's plenty of equally ridiculous goings-on in the smaller details of the story including the re-election of a Sarah Palin-like presidential figure (Stephanie Paul), a black astronaut (Christopher Kirby) the Nazis "turned" white in an attempt to make him a part of the "Master Race," and several others. Iron Sky is, as you can surmise, a comedy. And I laughed out loud plenty of times, but it wasn't as good a movie as I was hoping it would be. Just about all the pieces are there, but one or two of the actors overdo the already hyperbolic elements in the film and one too many times the movie goes careening into the eye-rolling without sufficient subtlety. Where it really succeeds as a spectacle is when you consider that much of the film was made through Wreck-A-Movie; a company that specializes in participatory cinema and in crowdsourcing various aspects of production. And I loved the concept enough to say that I recommend seeing Iron Sky, despite the fact that - objectively - it's not that great of a movie. But it's self-aware enough to make it worth seeing, and there are a number of references to other movies with similar themes or stories: namely Der Untergang (Downfall) and Dr. Strangelove. In fact, Iron Sky feels a lot like an homage to Dr. Strangelove - though it's not anywhere close to being as strong a film. I think ultimately where the movie fails is in attempting to weave too much social commentary into its narrative; I think it should have just stuck to being goofy and self-deprecating. Such as it is, Iron Sky is still unique and funny enough to be worth your time. And it's a real novelty of participatory cinema to boot; if it doesn't give you the itch to check out Wreck-A-Movie and possibly become a part of their next production - I don't know what will.


I can't help but recollect the dark words of Agent Smith in The Matrix Revolutions every time I see this title: "...only a human mind could invent something as insipid as love." And Love is certainly not without its fair share of insipidness. But there's definitely more to it, and it's not all bad - I'm relatively surprised to say. Fans of Angels and Airwaves will recognize this film right away as part of the band's multi-platform media endeavors. Fortunately, if you're not a fan of Angels and Airwaves, there's not enough of their signature here to be a deterrent. The movie begins with a Civil War battle on the brink of erupting. One of the soldiers is told by his commanding officer to leave the battlefield in search of an artifact recently discovered and after wandering for a brief montage the soldier comes upon a crater - though we don't see what's within. We are then taken to a space station where a lone astronaut loses contact with mission control for reasons we're not yet privy to. The next 50 minutes or so of the film's run time is occupied with charting his loosening grip on reality, as the isolation slowly drives him crazy. The last 20 minutes or so of the movie deal with how his isolation is resolved and how he's brought to a higher plane of existence because of it. If it sounds an awful lot like 2001: A Space Odyssey that's because it very much is. In fact, the film goes further than simple homage and openly reproduces elements from that film; in some cases shot-for-shot. You don't get the impression that it's done maliciously or with the expectation of surpassing Kubrick's masterpiece, so it's not wholly offensive - at least it wasn't to me. But it wouldn't be unfair to say that this movie is the poor man's 2001. Love was a strange viewing experience for me, because it repeatedly had me loving it and then hating it - sometimes within the space of a few minutes. The long stretches on the space station are mercilessly tedious; though this was likely intentional and meant to convey the sense of loneliness and instability the astronaut experiences. Interspersed with these vignettes are dreams the astronaut has of a beautiful woman who is seductively dressed and posed, and constantly having her hair tossed about by some stock fan off camera. These scenes could be transplanted shot-for-shot into a tawdry rap music video and they'd be perfectly at home, so it was in these moments - for example - that I despised this movie. Then, during the film's opening Civil War battle scene, I was awestruck by how beautifully the combat was captured in slow motion. One particular shot made my mouth literally hang open: the grizzled and long haired general swings his saber as the soldiers around him clash in conflict - all in muted tones and caught in a jaw-dropping slow motion. If slow-mo were ever being exploited gratuitously, it's in the opening moments of this film. But that didn't make it any less captivating to see. Love is certainly more optimistic and more light than 2001 (in case you couldn't tell by the title), and for all its faults - I ultimately enjoyed it. Love is tedious, beautiful, pretentious, thought-provoking, and haunting...not in that order, and sometimes all at once. It's cerebral and definitely on the experimental side; an art-house film of debatable merit, but undeniable presentation.


It should come as no secret to frequent readers of this blog or friends of mine that I like chick flicks as a general rule. And having seen all of the bigger and better-known titles I can think of, I'm always on the lookout for an indie or underground rom-com to tide me over until the next Sleepless In Seattle, 13 Going on 30, Crazy, Stupid, Love, etc. It was by such intent I was directed towards The Rebound, starring Catherine Zeta-Jones as leading lady Sandy - a woman whose recent divorce has taken more of a toll on her personal life than she cares to admit. Justin Bartha plays Aram, a young man she meets at a Women's Center where he volunteers. At the urging of her stock character close friend, Sandy decides to "get back out there" into the dating world while Aram becomes something of a nanny to Sandy's two children. But they predictably begin to form a romantic bond that transcends their relative age gap and the rest is something you've seen before in a host of other, and more importantly, better films. I'm trying to resist the urge to be too vicious with this movie, but it's a bit of a struggle given how pitifully it achieves its goals. To start with, Aram is a perfect character. There's no need for character development with him because he's already a better human being than anyone you've met; you could practically hear the writer's backlog of Freudian hangups being poured into him during the writing process. He's a Women's Studies studies major with a passion for feminism who volunteers at a Women's Center, he's great with kids, he's conscientious and respectful all the time regardless of the circumstance, he does humanitarian work, he's technically divorced because he was in a green-card marriage for a close friend of his who was on the verge of being deported: he's perfect. He's too perfect, even for a chick flick. Then there's Sandy, who is constantly injecting her conversations with various feminist mantras. Feminism is awesome, I mean that - I don't have anything against feminists and I'm certainly not sexist. But we only need to hear her tell her daughter about the power she has as a woman or comment on how she doesn't need a man once or twice to get the point. She's every annoying feminist cliche rolled into one and to top it off, Zeta-Jones turns in a subpar performance. She's not terrible, but she's been so much better in so many other films I was genuinely surprised to see her acting with such visible effort. I don't really mind a predictable story if it's handled the right way; there's a way to be pleasantly predictable without just slacking off on keeping the film engaging. The Rebound is a good example of the latter; you can see practically every beat coming a mile away and there's precious little with which to justify it. The premise of The Rebound was compelling enough; I really liked the idea of exploring the societal double standard that says men dating younger women is somehow more appropriate than vice versa. But instead all I got was Justin Bartha always saying the perfect thing and Catherine Zeta-Jones trying too hard.


Any Mike Birbiglia fans in the audience? If so then this title should be very familiar. Birbiglia has gained critical acclaim with his one man show of the same title. But Sleepwalk With Me, the film, is fortunately not just an exercise in redundancy. The movie opens with Mike addressing the camera, opening the film the way he does his standup performance. From there, it transitions into a standard narrative - occasionally interspersed with vignettes of Birbiglia addressing the camera, transitioning from various parts of his story. The story he tells is one that's the textbook definition of bittersweet, and almost embarrassingly frank. Mike Pandamiglio (Birbiglia's cinematic counterpart) is a struggling standup comic who feels like his life is in a bit of a rut. He's in a steady relationship with Abby (Lauren Ambrose), but he's beginning to develop a sleepwalking problem that's more than once put him in precarious positions. As he begins to pursue his standup career more seriously, his relationship with Abby begins to crumble and his sleepwalking becomes exponentially more problematic. Birbiglia opens the film by saying that everything he's about to relay is fact; that this is a completely true story. He makes mention that often after his shows people ask him if it really did happen the way he says it did, and asserts that he's fabricated nothing. Despite some of the rather shocking things that happen to him - mostly on account of his sleepwalking - the film evinces a kind of sincerity that seems to corroborate Birbiglia's claim. Moreover, he makes no attempt to paint himself as a hero or a great guy throughout the course of the film - lending the whole movie an even greater feeling of authenticity. Sleepwalk With Me has a number of a laugh out loud moments, and just as many that will make you cringe with embarrassment or mortification for the people involved. Birbiglia's standup is much more laugh-a-minute than this film, which is as many parts drama as it is comedy. But Birbiglia is such an evidently likeable guy - even when he's not behaving in a likeable way - that it's hard to deny the inherent charm the film brings to the table. I greatly enjoyed Sleepwalk With Me; it's a fantastic piece of independent cinema that reminds you just how powerful low budget films can be with the right material in the hands of the right people. If you've seen Birbiglia's one-man show then Sleepwalk With Me won't offer any revelations you're not already privy to. But that shouldn't put you off watching it. And even if you don't know the first thing about Mike Birbiglia, Sleepwalk With Me is the perfect introduction.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Netflix Nuggets - Documentary Edition

It's a new year, and I've got yet another special edition in the Netflix Nuggets series. I've been scratching the documentary itch lately, and as a result I have a collection of documentaries I'd like to share with you. So without further adieu, we kick off 2013 with Netflix Nuggets: Documentary Edition!


Whether you regard it as a positive or negative aspect of our culture, sex is a big part of the media machine. From ads to films to books to music to just about everywhere in between, we've heard it before and we can vouch for its effectiveness: sex sells. Various subcultures in the country have responded to it in different ways and for different reasons. But the discussion about sex and its prominence in our day-to-day lives - for better or worse - has left a subset of society alienated: asexuals. It should come as little surprise that many (including myself before seeing this film) aren't even aware that such people exist; that there are those in the population who have no interest in sexual activity of any kind whatsoever. Or at least, that such people exist outside of certain religious or societal constraints - that they, like so many others, are simply born that way. The documentary primarily follows David Jay, a self-proclaimed asexual who took it upon himself to start a website for other people like himself to gather and share ideas. As a kind of de facto spokesperson for the asexual community, David is nonetheless a visibly humble individual whose primary motivation is educating both the public and asexuals themselves on how to live in a society that has little place for them. The film spans a few years and articulates some really fascinating talking points regarding how asexuals often struggle in their relationships because many simply don't understand their way of thinking. The film was extensively educational for me, and while it doesn't feature a lot of flash or flare it was still engrossing and very entertaining. One particularly compelling scene depicted a group of asexuals at a gay pride parade. I was genuinely surprised to see how many people at the parade indirectly or openly shunned these people despite being recipients of such bigotry themselves. I myself admit I can't even begin to understand what it would be like living without any kind of sexual impulse, even after this documentary. But the film was truly eye-opening and really helped me to gain fresh perspective in my worldview.


Having grown up in a fairly conservative household (and homeschooled to boot), I had heard a lot about the company Cleanflicks and those like it in the early 2000s. Cleanflicks' business model was fairly simple: they took major motion pictures - usually R or PG-13 rated, edited them to remove offensive content (nudity, language, violence, etc.), and then resold them. A number of other services like it began to crop up, and ultimately caught the eye of Hollywood at large. Predictably, or if you remember this from the news, the company was handed a ruling indicating they were in violation of copyright law - and what followed is largely a tale of loopholes and outright flouting of legal precedent. The documentary itself, however, reveals a number of details about the goings-on behind the scenes of the business that make this story far more intriguing than one might initially expect. I was drawn to this documentary because I remember Cleanflicks from my growin' up years, and while I've developed media tastes that stray far outside those in which I was raised - I never found fault with the idea of studios publicly releasing edited versions of their films for more sensitive viewers. It's a service they provide for airlines and television networks (a point the film brings up) after all. But Cleanflix isn't an activist's manifesto; it's just an honest look at the story of this business. Several interviews offer differing opinions on the issue of such a business's legitimacy ranging from the founders and owners of the business, to "man on the street" type interviews, to some of the directors whose work was in question. The film does a brilliant job of illustrating some of the objective problems with a business such as this; like the dangers of acclimating to censorship, the hypocrisy of running an illegal business focused on "family values," and the potential damage to be done by extensive psychological repression. The movie didn't really make any points I disagreed with, so I felt kinship with the filmmakers as a result. But what I found most revelatory were the details of how the business was run, in some cases by people who weren't even technically affiliated with the Cleanflicks branding. As a result, the film almost plays like a retrospective on a mafia family as it details the intrigue and scandal woven throughout the story of this business and the people it ultimately effected - for better or worse.

I'm a big fan of Morgan Spurlock. Super Size Me and The Greatest Movie Ever Sold are two of my favorite documentaries, and Spurlock is every bit deserving of the recognition he's received on behalf of his creative endeavors. So it was with high expectations that I sat down to Mansome, Spurlock's latest film, which attempts to outline the social perceptions and definitions of male grooming. It's an intriguing concept, as far as I'm concerned. And Spurlock certainly does his damndest to make it interesting. Interspersed with the documentary's overall arc is a little "mini-movie" that follows Jason Bateman and Will Arnett to the spa for some beautification treatments. But I was surprised by how lackluster the whole thing felt by the end, and what a disappointment it was overall. The biggest mistake I think the film makes is spending too much time with two men who are just patently unlikeable unless you belong to their respective societal niches. The first is Jack Passion, a man who has won numerous beard competitions around the world and holds the unofficial title of America's Greatest Beardsman. But Passion is a pretentious and even downright rude individual who claims that since a man's natural state is bearded, clean-shaven guys are "in perpetual boyhood." On the opposite end of the spectrum is Ricky Manchanda, a man made up of every annoying metro cliche you can imagine. We follow him around town as he takes various grooming treatments (at one point advising a cosmetologist to remove just two hairs from one of his eyebrows in order to shape it properly) and shows off his new clothes and takes - according to his own words - an hour and a half to get ready for each day. To each his own, to be sure. But both of these men are insufferably consumed with themselves and their excessive vanity pollutes the film. Had they only been briefly mentioned as part of a larger look at their respective societal subsets, it wouldn't be quite so detrimental. But easily 70-80 percent of the film focuses on them exclusively. Mansome has a great concept and a few winning moments (largely courtesy of Bateman and Arnett), but it's completely torpedoed by the two subjects at its center. Here's hoping Spurlock's next movie is a return to form.


I do not personally know very many people with mental disabilities. I have always been fascinated by how many of these people - and those who take care of them - live their day to day lives. But I've never been quite certain of just how to approach my own curiosity for fear of "doing it wrong;" perhaps directly or indirectly offending others in the process. But as part of this curiosity, I queued up Monica & David whilst looking for something to occupy space between loads of laundry on a Sunday afternoon. A relatively short piece of cinema (only 67 minutes), the movie follows the titular people: a couple with Down syndrome whose marriage is the primary topic of the film. After some brief introductions, the movie jumps right into exploring what the outset of their marriage is like. Interspersed with interviews of various family members is a collage of vignettes of the two around the house and the city as they learn the skills necessary to help them achieve a measure of independence from Monica's parents - who are their primary caretakers. It's a very touching and poignant piece of work, as several of the interviews devolve into tears before too long. But Monica & David isn't an overly sentimental film, or one obsessed with getting a rise out of its audience. It's honest and candid without being exploitative or disrespectful. And ultimately it's an incredibly uplifting experience to watch these two people display a love for each other that's heartbreaking in both its simplicity and its depth. Furthermore I appreciated the overall presentation of the film, as I didn't feel as though the subjects were treated as novelties and by extension I didn't feel as though my curiosity about their lives was intruding upon the bounds of propriety. Educational, emotional, honest, entertaining - this is an exemplary piece of documentary cinema.


I almost didn't include this one on account of the rather volatile nature of almost any discussion that involves Fox News. I don't present this title as much of a talking point, because all the pertinent talking points can be found within. The title is about as self explanatory as they come, and gives you a good idea of what this documentary is about. While the film is a bit dated (2004), the points it raises are as applicable as they ever were. I'm not here to promote liberalism any more than conservatism, and neither is Outfoxed. What the film does is map, point by point, the exact sins for which it feels the network should be called to account. There are a smattering of info graphics that help illustrate the extent of the documentary's contentions, in addition to interviews with former employees of the network and academics in the journalism field. Here and there, the tone of the movie skews towards the snide or the derisive as they somewhat glibly point out errors in logic or factual presentation or in the double-speak of some of the new anchors. But for the most part, Outfoxed doesn't really have to get too caustic because much of the evidence they present is damning enough. I've never taken issue with Fox News as being a largely conservative news network (something the documentary does, more or less), but I have been somewhat amused by the "Fair and Balanced" image they attempt to portray while so obviously skewing right. And this is where most of the documentary's attention is fixated: the hypocrisies the network, at a corporate as well as often individual anchor level, has perpetuated throughout the majority of its existence. Again, this film isn't likely to sway your political leanings one way or another because that's not what it's out to do. But if you're a fan of Fox News, you may find that a number of things you didn't know about the network might change your opinion. And if you're a really big fan of Fox News, you probably weren't captivated by a title such as this in the first place. But for me, this articulated and crystallized a number of misgivings I've had about the network for some time.


In my opinion, Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová are two of the most beautiful people alive today. Not physically so much; I mean specifically in regards to their souls. I say that because there's an astonishing depth to the songs they've written; musically and lyrically. If you've heard anything they've recorded individually or as a duo (under the moniker The Swell Season) or seen the movie Once you know exactly what I'm talking about. The Swell Season is a fly-on-the-wall documentary about the duo that focuses specifically on the surge in fame and critical recognition they've received since the release of Once. Filmed entirely in black and white, and occasionally intercutting extended scenes from live performances, The Swell Season does a pitch perfect job of capturing the creative energy of Glen and Markéta. Glen's family is interviewed in a few places, though unfortunately no interviews with the family Irglová. There's an unflinching quality to the presentation that I greatly appreciated because it imbues the whole experience with a palpable authenticity. More than a few times the two confront each other on camera over various tour-related or personal disputes, and though sincere and candid their arguments never devolve into unnecessary aggression. As one can surmise, the two had a romantic relationship at one point in time - another aspect the documentary doesn't shy away from. And while that's long since become a part of the past, it's amazing to see how intertwined their souls are - absent a romantic relationship. If you're a fan of their music or of Once I can't recommend more strongly that you add this to your must-see list. If you were to remove the interviews, The Swell Season could almost play like a black-and-white sequel to Once in its own way. Such as it is, it's a magnificent documentary in its own right; to say nothing of the captivating music and personalities of the two principle subjects.