The Marvelous Brie Larson — #6

Welcome back to another edition of my latest Actor Profile, The Marvelous Brie Larson, a monthly series revolving around the silver screen performances of one of my favorite actresses. If you are a newcomer to this series, the idea behind this feature is to bring attention to a specific performer and their skill sets and to see how they contribute to a story.

For the penultimate installment in my Brie Larson spotlight I’m focusing on a black comedy from British director Ben Wheatley. Considering I have seen only two of his seven films — High Rise and Free Fire — I am not what you would call a Ben Wheatley expert. But what I’ve seen of his work so far has been enough for me to consider him a pretty unique director. Again, it’s a small sample size but I’ve really enjoyed how distinctly different these two movies are. Pure, unbridled chaos and pitch-black comedy seem to be the only things these movies from the mid-twenty-teens have in common. Well, that and if getting a lot of high-profile actors to be in your movie is a talent, Wheatley is most definitely talented.

Free Fire is his first movie “set” in America, though the old print factory in Brighton, England makes for a perfect stand-in for a Boston warehouse. It’s an action-driven movie that plays out as if Guy Ritchie directed Reservoir Dogs, where the schadenfreude is in greater abundance than the bullets and the blood. Best of all, in a movie that features a ton of recognizable names, Brie Larson gets to play a significant role in it and she kills it — quite literally.

If you haven’t caught up with the dark pleasures of Free Fire, it’s streaming on Netflix right now.

Brie Larson as Justine in Ben Wheatley’s Free Fire

Role Type: Lead

Genre: Action/comedy/crime

Premise: Set in Boston in 1978, a meeting in a deserted warehouse between two gangs turns into a shoot-out and a game of survival.

Character Background: Justine, a kind of peacekeeper and one-woman coalition for reason and logic, was originally meant to be played by Olivia Wilde, but she ended up dropping out. I think Wilde is a really strong actor but I can’t see anyone else in this role. Larson’s eye-rolls and natural ability to deliver sarcastic quips are real treasures of this movie. Alongside her American, side-burned colleague Ord (Armie Hammer), she’s here to broker a black market arms deal between the IRA (represented primarily by Cillian Murphy) and a South African gun runner (played deliciously over-the-top by Sharlto Copley), one that goes hopelessly and hilariously awry thanks to an unforeseen event.

The screenplay (by Wheatley’s wife Amy Jump) provides her a really interesting arc. Justine is the lone woman amidst a pack of egotistical, volatile and fairly unsympathetic men. Early on she’s predictably dismissed as just a bit of scenery. When she’s not being referred to as “doll,” she’s being asked out to dinner in what has to be one of the least appropriate ask-someone-out-for-dinner situations ever. While her costars are by and large quick to demonstrate their instability and their sexism, Larson is keeping tallies, and her character’s own ulterior motives under wraps, waiting for the right moment to demonstrate her own penchant for opportunistic scheming.

Free Fire is a very simple movie, and that’s one of its great strengths. Larson describes it as “an action movie making fun of action movies.” The plot is easy to follow and while all the gunfire eventually becomes kind of white noise it’s the characters that make it worth sticking around for. They may be here for different reasons but the thing they will all have in common, sooner or later, are bullet wounds and injuries.

Marvel at this Scene: 

Rate the Performance (relative to her other work): 


All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.imdb.com 

Month in Review: September ’18

To encourage a bit more variety in my blogging posts and to help distance this site from the one of old, I’m installing this monthly post where I summarize the previous month’s activity in a wraparound that will hopefully give people the chance to go back and find stuff they might have missed, as well as keep them apprised of any changes or news that happened that month.

Non-sports fans feel free to skip these first paragraphs. I won’t feel bad if you aren’t all that interested in reading my little rant over the state of Tennessee football in 2018. Actually, I won’t even know. For movie coverage, head below the thin gray line. (See what I did there?)

Jeremy Pruitt — an x-factor, or just another ex? 

Photo credit: the Knoxville News Sentinel (knoxnews.com)

While movies are constantly being released, the college football season is a fleeting thing. And maybe thank the pigskin gods for that because folks, this year’s gonna be a rough one. At least if you call Rocky Top Tennessee home. The Volunteers are, uh . . . well, it’s a rebuilding year as they say. That means in 2018 preparing for more Ls than Ws, especially when you’re rooted in the Southeastern Conference, arguably the toughest place to play in all of football. And this year it also appears to mean, if you’re Jarrett Guarantano anyway, picking up your mouthguard after getting slammed in the gut after every single play.

For those on the outside, and possibly under a rock: In an attempt to move beyond the mess of the Butch Jones mid-season firing (some will say the Butch Jones era), this year we’ve picked up an Imperial Alabama defector in former defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt. He’s the fourth guy in the last decade to give this thing a crack. Since the sacking of long-time HC Phillip Fulmer in 2008, we’ve been Lane Kiffen’ed (7-6 overall; 4-4 in-conference in 2009 before his Houdini act at the eleventh hour left us after one season again headcoach-less), then were Derek Dooleyed (15-21 over three historically bad seasons for a Vol coach with a multi-year deal). Then Mr. Jones, who went 84-54 over four seasons, butchered it all in his 2017 and final season, one in which we didn’t come out on top once against our conference opponents. And, unfortunately through five games played thus far, in which we are 2-3 (0-2 in the SEC), right now it’s looking increasingly more like Jeremy Blewit.

If it seems like I am prematurely hitting the panic button, consider that our newly minted Coach was seen kicking a whiteboard on the sideline when things went sideways in the 2018 Great Florida-Tennessee Debacle — the 47-21 final score not all that indicative of the farce that unfolded that day. Consider the leadership role he’s fulfilling and the optics of him flipping his shit in his very first meaningful game, one that also happened to coincide with the 20th anniversary of the 1998 victory over the Gators. This meant that while he was out there going all Terence Fletcher on his players, members of that championship team were bearing witness to it all from either the stands or the sidelines. Consider that, to his former boss Nick Saban, the undisputed master of the modern collegiate game, Pruitt is now officially a part of the Rebel Alliance and must be destroyed. On Saturday, October 20 watch as the Evil Empire of college football, the Alabama Crimson Tide, rolls into town and reminds him of what he’s left behind.

To me, it isn’t that Pruitt needs to prove he’s got this big, winning personality — that would be a nifty plus — he just needs to show he’s capable of being an x-factor. That some of that Alabama Toughness can rub off on us. (Maybe that’s what he was trying to impart there with the white board incident. The board sure held tough.) For all that we have gone through, and are about to go through in this daunting schedule, let us hope he at least has the composure to make some of these nasty SEC clashes interesting. Interesting in a GOOD way. I don’t hold any pretense of him being our Nick Saban, or even a second coming of Phil Fulmer. But is it too much to expect a better end to the season than the quite frankly embarrassing way in which it has opened up? I don’t think it is.


New Posts

New Releases: Searching; BlacKkKlansman; Operation Finale; White Boy Rick


Around the Blogosphere 

First, a side note. How many of you are currently using the new Gutenberg editor WP has just started to roll out? How have you been liking it? I’m a creature of habit and haven’t really experimented with it but the block-style formatting seems pretty convenient.

As to blogging itself — man, there has been a flurry of activity from two of my go-to sites recently, Cinema Axis and Assholes Watching Movies. Both have provided extensive coverage of the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival. There are so many titles that I have just been introduced to I’m honestly kind of intimidated. I can’t even name two titles that I most want to see.

Meanwhile, Ryan has updated us on this month’s batch of horror releases. It’s October, so you know the pickings have to be pretty good. Head on over to his site here and have a look at what’s coming to theaters near you as well as VOD.


Recent (Re-)Viewings 

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (review here). I was way too harsh on this film when I first saw and reviewed it. The essence of that piece boiled down to me perceiving an “excess of fan service.” I was kinda right, but at the same time wildly swinging for the critical fences. Well aware of its rather simple and generic plot, I am nonetheless finding myself being gradually more persuaded by the Force thanks to regular re-watches of this 2016 spinoff in recent weeks, twice in September alone. Despite my less-than-five-star review, I’ve really come to love a lot about this movie — perhaps more than anything the casting, from Felicity Jones’ Jyn Erso and Mads Mikkelsen as her Imperial scientist father to Alan Tudyk voicing the highly sarcastic droid K-2SO, to Ben Mendelsohn as the slimy Orson Krennic and his ridiculously OTT “FIIIIIIRE!!!!!!” commands. That said, I am still less sold on Forrest Whitaker in the Star Wars universe. That’s right up there with Benecio Del Toro appearing in The Last Jedi. But the spirit of this adventure (and eventual suicide mission) and its significance in the grander scheme has really made a Star Wars fan out of me. About time, eh?

Sunshine — Danny Boyle, 2007.

A fellow blogger might recall reviewing this for my site way back in the day, when I was running a feature called Bite Sized Reviews (rest in digital peace). I told her after reading her take on it that I couldn’t wait to check it out. My Bite Sized Reviews thread has been defunct for over three years. Oops. But better late than never, because this might be at the top of the list when it comes to favorite Danny Boyle movies. 28 Days Later is great, but so the fuck is Sunshine. From the soothing yet terrifying solar flare-steeped visuals to the swelling, gorgeously ambient score — melancholic, but never depressing or too down-beat — to the mind-bending twisty science-fiction stuff at the end, Sunshine is a movie you don’t just watch, you feel it.


Go Big 🍊 !!!

King Jack

Release: Friday, June 10, 2016 (limited) 

[Netflix]

Written by: Felix Thompson

Directed by: Felix Thompson

Writer-director Felix Thompson’s first feature King Jack is a prickly little 81-minute production that shuffles through a nameless, shambling suburban block somewhere in the Pacific Northwest. Rather than offering anything in the way of a traditional narrative, it provides a window into the life of a young boy who must contend with neighborhood bullies, summer school and his annoying younger cousin.

Low-key, meditative drama ponders the nature of fate and consequence in small-town America, swamps of socioeconomic stagnation that give rise to trouble-seeking behavior and juvenile delinquency. Thompson’s fascinated in this teen with idle hands named Jack (Charlie Plummer), first seen spraying graffiti on a neighbor’s garage. His home life is far from ideal, what with an absentee father, an oblivious mother (Erin Davie), and an older brother Tom (Christian Madsen) who calls him ‘Scab.’

It’s not just at home where Jack faces conflict. Because his brother was something of a jock back in his high school days, nicknames like ‘Scab’ and ‘King Jack’ have become a part of the language throughout a community where high schoolers never really move on. Thugs like Shane (Danny Flaherty) are intent on perpetuating that tradition. It’s their rite of passage, an inheritance of “duty” not that dissimilar to what you see in popular gangster movies. With Tom having moved on, and now floundering in the real world as a mechanic with a gambling problem, the baton has been passed.

An element of survivalism pervades and is underpinned by gritty solemnity, a toughness that helps King Jack divorce from other troubled teen-centric indies. Events take place over the course of only one weekend, and yet a large chunk of the story finds its beleaguered protagonist wandering the streets rather than hanging around at home. Jack is something of a curiosity. He tries, like most sane people, to avoid confrontation but unlike the majority he also doesn’t do many things to endear himself to others — the way he treats his cousin Ben (Cory Nichols) as a prime example.

King Jack may be slight but its realism is potent. If you find the film speaking to memories of where you grew up it may even be poignant. Flaherty’s performance in particular is outstanding, a damning indictment of the futility of resorting to violence in order to deal with your own internal pain. But it’s Plummer toward whom I was constantly drawn, a solid young actor who plays both the victim and the instigator — often to heartbreaking effect.

Recommendation: King Jack probably won’t do much for those who seek closure and finality in their movies but it’s a solid little coming-of-age drama whose events are effectively and often provocatively depicted. King Jack also operates as a powerful anti-bullying PSA and I’d actually recommend it more strongly on that basis rather than on the merits of its cast and up-and-coming writer/director. 

Rated: NR

Running Time: 81 mins.

Quoted: “Leave me alone. You’re not my friend. So don’t try to act like it.”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com 

Train to Busan

Release: Friday, July 22, 2016 (limited) 

[Netflix]

Written by: Yeon Sang-ho

Directed by: Yeon Sang-ho

Train to Busan is a breathless and brutal South Korean zombie flick that broke a number of records last year, becoming the first Korean feature to breach the $1 million mark at the Singaporean box office. Over the past several months it has taken the world by storm, becoming one of the most commercially and critically successful zombie apocalypses ever.

Yeon Sang-ho’s first live-action feature does for zombies what James Wan’s The Conjuring did for haunted houses. It’s a superlative genre film of uncommon intelligence, exuding all the elements that characterize such films as uniquely entertaining and disturbing, while never really making an attempt to “be different.” Simply put, movies like Train to Busan and The Conjuring prove that tropes are tropes for a reason; they can be powerfully affecting if nurtured properly. It also helps the cause when your actors are this good at selling them.

Train to Busan improves its stock by investing more in human relationships as opposed to obsessing over how many zombies it can overload the frame with. Seok-woo (Gong Yoo) is a divorced hedge fund manager who doesn’t have the time to pay attention to his young daughter, Soo-an (a marvelous Kim Soo-an), evidenced by the fact he has bought her for her upcoming birthday yet another gaming console, identical to the one currently sitting on her TV stand in her bedroom — the one he got her as a recent Children’s Day gift. All she wants is to go stay with her mother in Busan, and she’s determined to go alone so that she doesn’t hassle daddy. But when Soo-an shows him a video of her recent singing recital, which she was unable to finish due to his absence, Seok becomes racked with guilt and decides he will in fact accompany her on the nearly 300-mile train ride.

The next day they board the KTX in Seoul, along with a number of passengers we will become familiar with over the course of this harrowing journey. There’s the surly, working-class Sang-hwa (Dong-seok Ma) and his pregnant wife Seong-kyeong (Yu-mi Jung), a pair of elderly sisters In-gil (Ye Soo-jung) and Jong-gil (Park Myung-sin), a homeless man (Gwi-hwa Choi) whose strange behavior and thoroughly unkempt appearance nearly gets him thrown off, a group of high school baseball players and, last but absolutely not least, the COO of a major corporation, Yon-suk (Kim Eui-sung). While these supporting parts don’t necessarily go beyond archetypes, they’re ably performed and, more crucially, give the story depth.

Joining these travelers as well is a visibly distressed young woman who just manages to board the KTX before it departs the station. Her leg is severely bleeding and something about her just seems off. Writer-director Sang-ho, waiting patiently for just the right time to release his finger from the pin of the grenade, brilliantly sets us on a collision course with chaos as the deadly consequences of an apparent biohazard disaster inadvertently make their way aboard one of the world’s fastest trains. (Achieving speeds upwards of 200 miles an hour, the KTX redefines the excitement of traveling. As does the action forthcoming.)

Train to Busan hurtles along at a breakneck pace with hard-hitting action that can be difficult to watch. I’ve always responded more strongly to those zombie flicks that actually make you dread The Turn — or films like Maggie that focus almost entirely on that transition and use it as an allegory for real people succumbing to real diseases in the real world. Sang-ho’s careful consideration of what it means to become one of the undead invokes the seminal 28 Days Later, if not in terms of atmosphere then in the way hope is slowly stripped away from the living like flesh from the bone.

Sang-ho’s decision to (mostly) isolate the drama within the confines of a moving train exacerbates the terror of being in proximity to the zombie. Mass hysteria combines with claustrophobic tension to form the ideal conditions for the uninfected to begin losing their humanity in other ways. Meanwhile cameras are often found sitting at eye-level with the young and impressionable Soo-an as she bears witness to the atrocities committed. This perspective, of a child trying to understand why people treat each other the way they do, brilliantly reflects Sang-ho’s own despair.

Word is that Train to Busan finds the Korean director tempering his anger a little bit (his previous animated efforts apparently offer the kind of acrimony and villainy that make the vile COO and his wildly selfish acts throughout this film seem innocent by comparison). But the injustices he has experienced, if not directly then through simple observation, manifest themselves in some brutal ways in a film that, historically, has no compulsion to offer anything more profound than icky special and/or practical effects and inventive kills. Train to Busan can sometimes overwhelm with the sense of hopelessness it provides. It’s dark and dangerous and deadly, and it’s just so damn good. Especially for a zombie movie.

Recommendation: Powerful and surprisingly hard-hitting, Train to Busan announces itself as a modern classic. It’s a film with something for everyone — the zombie purists and those who just want to have their nerves rattled for a solid two hours. Be sure you check this out on Netflix, unless of course movies about the undead are completely dead to you. 

Rated: NR

Running Time: 118 mins.

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited. 

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com 

I Am Not a Serial Killer

Release: Friday, August 26, 2016

[Netflix]

Written by: Billy O’Brien; Christopher Hyde

Directed by: Billy O’Brien

It’s a bold move naming your protagonist as a riff on real-life serial killer and rapist John Wayne Gacy, but then this is a bold movie with a bold title, one based on the 2009 novel of the same name written by Dan Wells, the first in a trilogy. It tells of a troubled teenager who encounters a string of grisly murders in his sleepy Midwestern town and becomes obsessed with finding out who is behind them, all while struggling to keep his own demons at bay.

The titular “weird until proven normal” character is an ostracized teen named John Wayne Cleaver played brilliantly by Max Records, a youthful actor seemingly plucked from a Nirvana music video. But the film he stars in doesn’t smell like teen spirit as much as it does carry whiffs of the Duffer brothers’ original hit series Stranger Things. Directed by Billy O’Brien, I Am Not a Serial Killer is both atmospheric and deeply involving, a film that takes viewers to places that are as disturbing as they are fascinating.

There’s something dark consuming John. He demonstrates an unhealthy fascination with death and is antisocial to the point where his therapist (Karl Geary) and his mother (Laura Fraser) have become greatly concerned about his future. Though he exudes some level of altruism by doing odd jobs for elderly neighbor Mr. Crowley (Christopher Lloyd), John spends most of his time embalming corpses with his mother at their family-run funeral parlor. It’s no surprise that when townsfolk start disappearing John finds himself drawn to the mysteries surrounding them, notably the pools of black oil left behind at the scene. One afternoon after following a drifter he suspects to be the murderer, John makes a stunning discovery that only plunges him further into his weird obsessions.

What unfolds is an unsettling exploration of fate and circumstance and how one’s environment — and more specifically, one’s proximity to tragedy — influences psychological and physical behavior. I Am Not a Serial Killer compels through sheer force of atmosphere alone — the chilly No-Name town doing its part to instill a sense of loneliness and isolation that complements the film’s themes and that exacerbates the horror. Steam rising out of a factory offers up a particularly ominous visual motif.

Ultimately the piece manifests as a slow-burning character study that may not offer up much in the way of cheap, easy thrills but it compensates for a lack of action with natural, unforced creepiness and methodical tension-building. It’s also an impressively acted affair. Christopher Lloyd still has great presence and it’s wonderful to see him take part in something as underground as I Am Not a Serial Killer. But the film really belongs to Records, whose intensely cerebral performance finds the humanity buried deep beneath the film’s icy façade. It’s a break-out performance you just have to experience for yourself.

Recommendation: A movie that exists on the fringe of humanity and flirts with insanity at every turn, I Am Not a Serial Killer is a bonafide midnight horror gem that offers much to fans of thoughtful, meditative storytelling. And fans of Stranger Things should find much to like here as well. 

Rated: NR

Running Time: 104 mins.

Quoted: “I’ve been clinically diagnosed with sociopathy, Rob. To me, you’re an object, you know. You’re a thing. You’re about as important to me as a cardboard box, and the thing about cardboard boxes is that they’re totally boring on the outside, right? But sometimes, if you cut them open, there’ll be something interesting on the inside. So, while you’re saying all these boring things to me, I’m thinking about what it’d be like to cut you open.”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited. 

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.rogerebert.com 

Trash Fire

Release: Friday, November 4, 2016 (limited)

[Netflix]

Written by: Richard Bates Jr.

Directed by: Richard Bates Jr.

Richard Bates Jr’s third film revolves around a family you’ll be glad you’re not a part of. That might be the understatement of the year. You’ve never seen family dysfunction like this, unless of course you have seen Psycho.

Not that I’m suggesting the relatively immature Trash Fire wakes up the echoes of Hitch’s classic. After all coincidence plays a large part here — that its director shares the surname of one of the most recognizable movie villains of all time compels me to draw comparisons more than anything. However, there is one other element these films share, one that’s harder to ignore, and that’s the influence of a severely troubled matriarch. In Psycho it was mother. In Trash Fire it’s grandma. Dear, sweet old grandma.

The film opens on a sour note, introducing us to miserable Owen (Adrian Grenier) who is unloading on his therapist about how when he was younger he planned to commit suicide after his parents died so he wouldn’t have to feel guilty about it. He literally resents being alive and goes out of his way to make the prospect (of living) a nightmare for those who dare get near him, such as his longtime girlfriend Isabel (Angela Trimbur), whose friends and family he can’t even pretend to tolerate.

When Isabel tells Owen she’s pregnant, the couple is confronted by a life-altering decision. It’s not the one you might expect, given Owen’s toxic cynicism forged in the crucible of an abusive childhood — one that, when finally explained, makes me wonder who really had it worse, Owen or Norman. We are led to believe that in some ironic twist of fate rearing a child might be the best thing for the couple. A second chance for a thoroughly broken man, a ray of hope for his long-suffering concubine.

To feel more comfortable about such a commitment Isabel establishes one condition: They must pay a visit to Owen’s grandmother Violet (Fionnula Flanagan) and sister Pearl (AnnaLynne McCord) so she can meet his family and he can make amends after years of estrangement following a house fire that indeed killed his parents and rendered Pearl an “abomination” and a shut-in.

Trash Fire struggles early despite its bold, frothy opening. The first half is spent building up the “relationship” — necessary toiling for the horror that’s soon to come. Once the story shifts to granny’s house the film really goes to work, endeavoring to strip what little humanity there is from the proceedings. Flanagan, whose age and frail physicality emphasize the film’s gleeful perversion, is legitimately terrifying. She is the quintessential religious zealot, a termagant whose TV is set only to channels vomiting fire-and-brimstone sermons and who instantly takes a dislike to Isabel, for she reminds her of the “whore” that was her own daughter.

Down the back stretch of this 91-minute production you’ll find nods to more well-established horror mythologies — shades of The Ring, Carrie and yes, Psycho, come and go, all while Trash Fire‘s slavish devotion to nihilism is intended to both support the film’s brazen title and separate its familiar content from the pack. And yet, the petulance reminded me of Gaspar Noé’s attempts at being as shocking as possible in Irreversible, where he famously introduced ultra-low-frequency sound in the film’s opening half hour, the intent being to physically yet subtly make viewers feel ill.

All of this is to say that the nastiness employed here works but only when you are susceptible to it, when exposure is minimal. There comes a point in Trash Fire, perhaps when we see Violet pleasuring herself to those televangelists, where the maliciousness diminishes in effect and threatens to undermine Owen’s legitimate problems. On a second viewing, I suspect familiarity will do considerable damage. For a once-through, however, Trash Fire is entertaining in its own weird little way.

Recommendation: Pitch-black comedy supposedly courses through the veins of this quirky and downright uncomfortable indie horror. As the people over at The AV Club aptly put it, perhaps only the most bitter nihilists will find the film funny. I did find the film amusing in fits and starts but more than anything I admired the bold performances put on by Adrian Grenier and Fionnula Flanagan. But now I want to watch something where the latter plays a nice lady. Maybe a grannie who bakes cookies. Something, anything, to cleanse the palate.

Rated: R

Running Time: 91 mins.

Quoted: “For as long as I can remember I’ve been waiting for my parents to die. And there they were, dead.” 

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.imdb.com; http://www.villagevoice.com

They Look Like People

tllp-movie-poster

Release: Friday, February 26, 2016 (limited)

[Netflix]

Written by: Perry Blackshear

Directed by: Perry Blackshear

They Look Like People is the debut feature from Perry Blackshear, a quietly unassuming hybrid of horror and psychological thriller elements built on a shoestring budget. The film, which revolves around a young man who has visions of an impending apocalyptic event, premiered at the 2015 Slamdance Film Festival where it won the Special Jury Prize.*

Paranoia-induced tension is channeled through the film’s impressive use of limited, urban environments and largely unaffected craftsmanship. Absent are a great many genre tropes in favor of a more natural approach, an approach that slowly brings humanity to the fore rather than special effects and other forms of trickery. Jump-scares and caterwauling violins have no place here.

In his second feature Macleod Andrews plays mentally disturbed Wyatt, who manages to track down an old friend in Christian (Evan Dumouchel) while passing through New York City. When Christian offers for Wyatt to stay with him for a few days he bears witness to his friend’s increasingly strange behavior resulting from a steadfast belief that everyone around him is being infected by a sinister, possibly alien entity.

Christian spends his time engaging in more mundane activities, like working up the courage to ask out his boss (Margaret Ying Drake), motivating himself by listening to self-help tapes on his morning commute, and working on his physique. The dude-stuff is apparently him turning over a new leaf. This is a new Christian, he tells Wyatt over a game of hoops. In response Wyatt asks if “anything scary has happened to him,” as if evaluating how much change he’s willing to accept in his longtime friend before starting to worry about, well . . .

They Look Like People isn’t a consistently compelling package and obvious limited funding has an adverse effect on the film’s ability to convince us it knows what it’s doing at all times, but the leads are really quite likable and their rapport is authentic and enjoyable. While the ending leaves something to be desired, Blackshear’s vision proves a satisfactory treatise on the nature of friendship and how that fundamental bond cannot be broken in spite of changes, both subtle and significant, perceived or real.

* The film went on to receive limited distribution in America in February 2016, thereby making it eligible for review on this blog, wherE ANYTHING RELEASED within a year to the date is fair game.

macleod-andrews-in-they-look-like-people

3-0Recommendation: Quiet, subtly disturbing indie horror/thriller boasts some spooky scenes and a great atmosphere. For fans expecting a lot of ‘stuff’ to happen though, They Look Like People may prove disappointing. But there’s enough here for me to say I’m excited to see what Perry Blackshear does next. 

Rated: NR

Running Time: 80 mins.

Quoted: “You are a mountain. You are a hundred miles high. You are invincible. You are forever.”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited. 

Photo credits: http://www.usa.nownetflix.com; http://www.theylooklikepeople.com 

Blue Jay

blue-jay-poster

Release: Friday, October 7, 2016 (limited) 

[Netflix]

Written by: Mark Duplass

Directed: Alex Lehmann

In Blue Jay, Mark Duplass and Sarah Paulson make a little adventure out of being a couple long since broken up. When the former high school sweethearts bump into each other at a grocery store in their hometown after 20 years, they spend an entire movie — the first in a four-movie deal Duplass has recently inked with Netflix — taking a stroll down memory lane.

It’s actually a wonderful conceit and who better to handle the walking and talking and thick-beard-charmery than Mark Duplass? Looking fresh off the set of a Carhartt commercial (yet well within the definition of a typical mumblecorian protagonist), he stars as a 30-something-year-old blank slate barely named Jim at the beginning of the film. Over the course of a breezy 80 minutes we will come to know more about him through his awkward-then-amazing interactions with co-star Sarah Paulson, who plays his high school girlfriend, Amanda.

The two find themselves back in their native Crestline, California for different reasons. A conversation over coffee soon reveals just how many other things have changed in their lives. But their genuine attraction to one another has clearly endured. They slip right back into roles they have long since vacated as they go about town reminiscing about their youth and “uncool-ness,” enjoying the most romantic not-date anyone has ever experienced.

Throughout we become privy to a series of revelations that intimate a shared past filled with joy but one not devoid of pain. The question looms ever larger despite (or perhaps because of) all the fun being had: what could have possibly caused such kindred spirits to drift apart?

While Duplass has a screenwriting credit, the foggy haze of memory and nostalgia is realized through a combination of improvised dialogue and intuitive performance. As is true for any low-budget indie, well-made or not, the experimental approach carries with it a significant risk of failure. Blue Jay was also shot in black-and-white on a camera originally designed for military use. This would all seem like a tick-list of indie affectations had the film shown no interest in connecting with its audience.

Blue Jay is quite a lot more than artifice. It’s a perpetually enlightening experience chiefly concerned with the way we romanticize the past, particularly past relationships. Jim and Amanda prove that reconciliation is possible if you really want it. (I guess you also have to be a little lucky, too.) I wanted for this to go on longer. Eighty minutes simply isn’t enough when you’re in the company of people who are as adorkable as Mark Duplass and Sarah Paulson.

dance-party-with-mark-duplass-and-sarah-paulson

4-0Recommendation: Bittersweet indie film is tailor-made for fans of Mark Duplass’ unique sensibilities. It’s also a great showcase for Sarah Paulson, who steps into a role I don’t think I’ve ever seen her play before. Blue Jay gives us so many different ways of dealing with the pain that inevitably comes with the break-up. In that way the movie is pretty inspiring. 

Rated: NR

Running Time: 80 mins.

Quoted: “Are you going to be the first female white rapper to open for Public Enemy?”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited. 

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com 

Month in Review: January ’17

To encourage a bit more variety in my blogging posts and to help distance this site from the one of old, I’m installing this monthly post where I summarize the previous month’s activity in a wraparound that will hopefully give people the chance to go back and find stuff they might have missed, as well as keep them apprised of any changes or news that happened that month.

Speaking of which, I apologize for the length of and/or the information dump in this post — what a month it has been, eh?


New Posts

Reviews: Divines; Why Him?; Passengers; Lion; Silence; Live By Night; Lost in London (Live); Wiener-Dog; Patriots Day; Split

Blindspot Selection: Defiance (2009) 

Other posts: Just a Quick Thought: Netflix purges 30-for-30?; my Blindspot 2017 listThomas J welcome/orientation page; #OscarsSoPredictable

Movie News

Ben Affleck bails on his standalone Batman project . . . . as director, that is.

Forest Whitaker, Angela Bassett, Sterling K. Brown join the cast of Marvel’s Black Panther.

More sad news as related to celebrity deaths, with the passing of John Hurt, Miguel Ferrer, Mary Tyler Moore, among others . . .

Blogging News 

“Hm, ‘T-h-o-m-a-s J,’ that’s a weird way to spell Digital Shortbread, but okay.”

Yes, indeed I have overhauled the blog in an effort to better reflect my goals as a blogger and to give a new lease on the life of this URL. More perceptive readers will have noticed that that has still not changed but it will be soon. (I found that by changing the URL name means necessarily buying out another domain.)

There will be a few tweaks to the site but in general I don’t do well with radical change so you’ll be familiar with the way my reviews are formatted. The rating system I am changing, however. Films will now be scored on a 5-point scale, with 5 indicating an outstanding achievement in whatever genre it happens to be in — I will try my best not to skewer my ratings based on such things but who knows. I might just be in a good mood that day, too.

This site will still prioritize new releases over anything else, so that will remain the focus of Thomas J. I am yet undecided whether to revive old features such as Throwback Thursday or Bite Sized Reviews and/or to turn them into something else or if I’ll abandon those concepts completely. Stay tuned on that . . .

With the complete disappearance of all ESPN Films’ 30-for-30 installments on Netflix I am also unsure if I will feature those documentaries with any degree of regularity this year. They may pop up every now and then but I am going to have to see whether it is worth pursuing that still.


OH — ONE LAST FAVOR: if you do have me listed in your blog roll or anywhere on your site, please change the name to Thomas J, if you would be so kind. I am now forever indebted.

Wiener-Dog

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Release: Friday, June 24, 2016 (limited)

[Vimeo]

Written by: Todd Solondz

Directed by: Todd Solondz

This review is my latest contribution to Mr. Rumsey’s Film Related Musings. Please feel free to leave a comment here or on the original article. Thanks as always for featuring me, James! 

Wiener-Dog is a tough film to like. You certainly can’t, or maybe aren’t supposed to, love it. I’m actually pretty sure you’re just supposed to be shocked by it. It’s about a dog who gets shuffled from weirdo to weirdo who in some way or another finds their life affected by its presence.

Put that way, it kind of sounds like Air Bud or any other Disney-like movie about someone befriending a lovable canine.  Put that way, it sounds fun. This movie is neither of those things.

Wiener-Dog is an unrelentingly dark, bleak comedy peppered with unlikable characters and some sequences that are just begging for animal rights groups to petition and denounce Todd Solondz’ work à la Heaven’s Gate. Yes, a dog may be man’s best friend but in Wiener-Dog he is also man’s metaphorical punching bag. The film isn’t interested in subjecting the animal to physical cruelty but it surrounds the poor thing in a world of misery, disappointment, regret and general negativity.

That the dog often serves as our most relatable character says everything about Solondz’ disdain for the human race. He thrusts the dog (the audience) upon the kinds of dysfunctional individuals you only ever encounter in the movies, while insidiously breaking the spirit of dog lovers everywhere who were foolish enough to think this movie might be cute.

The innocence and naivety of animals subservient to man offers a point of view that over time becomes increasingly absurd. You’re meant to be experiencing the film through the eyes of the dog — at various points appellated ‘Wiener-Dog,’ ‘Doody’ and ‘Cancer’ — but it’s confusing because the movie isn’t so much about the day-in-the-life of man’s best friend. It’s more interested in using the dog as a vessel to transport us through the wreckage of these ‘ordinary’ lives.

The dog begins her journey with a wealthy family. Patriarch Danny (Tracy Letts) has brought home a puppy for son Remi who has been battling cancer. Dina (a loathsome Julie Delpy) isn’t a fan of the idea. She goes out of her way to tell her son that spaying a dog is the only way to prevent the dog from suffering various horrible fates. Everyone should have a mom just like her. After some time Remi’s lone source of happiness proves to be a pestilence and Danny decides it’s time to put it down.

Luckily for Wiener-Dog a sympathetic nurse snatches her out of the veterinary clinic. This saint is Dawn Wiener, an introvert to the extreme. Greta Gerwig plays the character who has been reprised from an earlier Solondz film, Welcome to the Dollhouse. She one day runs into an old acquaintance named Brandon (Kieran Culkin) and they embark on a road trip to Ohio to see Brandon’s family, to whom he must deliver some bad news. His brother and his wife — both with Down Syndrome — soon find themselves in possession of the dog when Dawn feels their home is a better place for her briefly beloved ‘Doody.’

Your commitment to oddball black comedies faces its toughest test when the dog inexplicably falls into the lap of depressed screenwriting prof Dave Schmerz (Danny DeVito). This bucket of pure misery epitomizes the film’s agonistic, misanthropic tonality. He is also Solondz’ most obvious middle-finger to his fellow man, in this case, prospective filmmakers who think they have the right stuff to launch a career. “It’s not that easy to be a creative genius. You have to be daring,” Solondz says with a bomb strapped to the titular dachshund in a scene you will have to rewind and watch again to believe.

Last and absolutely least the dog finds its way into the house of elderly Nana (Ellen Burstyn). The poor old thing can’t catch a break! Nana is visited by her awful granddaughter Zoe (Zosia Mamet) who expects her Nana to relieve her bank account of 10 grand so her beau Fantasy (Michael Shaw) can get his latest art exhibit up and running. You’re at a point in the picture where caring is so optional it’s not really even an option.

At the end of the day, Wiener-Dog is meant to inspire us to continue taking life as it comes to us, the good and the bad. If you aren’t as cynical as Solondz and you’re trying to make it to the end of his movie, you might find yourself having to be your own cheerleader. Keep telling yourself it isn’t always going to be this bad. You’ll eventually get to the end.

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2-0Recommendation: This is apparently Todd Solondz’ eighth feature film, and it’s my first time watching his work. It has a style and tone that gives me the impression he has his own cult following. If you count yourself among those people, you’ll probably lap up Wiener-Dog in all its weirdness. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 88 mins.

Quoted: “A dog is not human. It’s an animal. Nature doesn’t care about them. It’s sad, but true. We’re dogs’ only friend.” 

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited. 

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com