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Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Stray Dog - A Film Review

I really liked the 2015 documentary Stray Dog a lot. It was directed by Debra Granik (Winter's Bone; Down to the Bone) about a man named Ronnie, who is a Vietnam veteran and biker. He is dealing with his own brutal memories of the war and talks with fellow vets, opening up about conflicted thoughts on their experiences and life afterwards, as well as traveling with his biker crew to the Vietnam Memorial to pay respect to fallen brothers.

At home in Missouri, he owns and runs an RV park, where he lives with his Mexican wife Alicia. He is learning Spanish to become more bilingual, teaching himself through a computer language program and practicing with her. He is fond of his four little dogs, and it is really sweet to see a burly biker dude shearing his poodles or feeding his daughter's kitten via an eye dropper.

Alicia is adjusting to living in America (she speaks English, but is obviously more open and comfortable in Spanish) and living in a trailer park with Southern poor white folk. She has her twin teenage sons who she is bringing over from Mexico to live with them, and the boys don't speak English and need to learn it from Ronnie in order to work as adults, which does include some funny moments regarding American slang. The film is her story, too, and Granik gives her a lot of screentime to speak about her life as an immigrant and adjusting to a new life.

Alicia worries about Ronnie's mental state, especially when he watches war movies and just goes into his own world, tuning everything else out. She is trying to be supportive of him, but still worries about him having PTSD.

I thought this was a great documentary, and I liked seeing how multi-faceted Ronnie was beyond his initial appearance. He is a biker who is open and caring, loves animals, taught himself Spanish, and is dedicated to improving his mental health as well as the health of fellow vets.

The film can be found on PBS' website.

Saturday, October 31, 2015

The German Doctor - A Film Review

I watched a historical drama this morning that, while not classified as a horror film, was still pretty terrifying. It was called The German Doctor, and it is an Argentinean film from 2013 about a family in 1960 who take in as a house guest a charming and friendly German doctor who turns out to be Josef Mengele under an assumed name. Mengele had committed atrocious acts against Jewish people in the Holocaust, believing in a "pure" genetic race and conducting genetic experiments on them. He gains the trust of the family (though the father is often suspicious of him), especially their 12-year old daughter, and convinces the family to allow him to give them "medicine" in order to help the child grow and the pregnant mother to carry her twins. He also funds the father's creation of handmade dolls, but Mengele has them designed to look like Aryan children with blue eyes and blonde hair in braids.

The film's story was horrific because the doctor seems so trusting, and acts really kind and caring, and he would be trusted as a doctor to know best for the family's health. The film has a slow but suspenseful pace, and it is terrifying to watch this person, who commuted atrocious acts against humanity, continue the same pattern in a new place while evading authorities. A personal highlight for me was that it was an archivist who uncovered his identity through her research.

The actor who played Mengele (his cover name is Helmut) was phenomenal. He didn't do any bad guy cliches, just playing a man who absolutely believed in a "pure" race and did what he thought was right, but with no consideration towards other people's pain or protests. That is a much more difficult role to play, a villain who sees themselves as the hero in their own story and that they are in the right.

The film is fictional, but Mengele really did run away to Argentina post-WWII and evaded authorities while continuing to experiment on children and pregnant women. He drowned in 1979 off the coast of Brazil, sadly never brought to justice like other captured Nazis.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

The Life and Crimes of Doris Payne - A Film Review

I really enjoyed watching the 2013 documentary The Life and Crimes of Doris Payne, directed by Kirk Marcolina and Matthew Pond. It is a documentary about 85-year old Doris Payne, a black woman who is a career jewel thief, and has stolen jewelry from high-end stores all over the world for 40 years, and has been convicted several times, but rarely did serious prison time.

She is very charming, likable, funny, and smart as hell, but also really manipulative and a remorseless sociopath, often arguing her way out of situations by complimenting people or confusing their recollection of events so that she is always in the right. She often had really slick ways of tricking people when she did her robberies, either coming off as trustworthy (palming a diamond, dropping it on the floor, letting the jeweler get confused where it is, then she picks it up and presents, making herself appear trustworthy so that she can steal for real when the jeweler isn't looking) or having white rich-looking accomplices while she played the role of a servant or nurse or someone unassuming.

She brags about her European adventures, though I think she romanticizes her tales to sound like a Hollywood glamour movies. She is a fascinating character, and just got arrested again for stealing from Saks, though I doubt she will actually go to prison, she is too old at this point.

She grew up really poor with an abusive father, and stole jewelry first as a rebellious act against a racist jeweler, then stole again to pawn a diamond so she could fund her mother's escape from her father. She saw her life as a thief as a way of attaining glamour, getting back at racism by stealing from rich white people, and gaming the system. I don't agree with her being a thief, as I think she is very selfish and criminal despite her charming exterior, but I have sympathy for her initial reasons. I know that there was talk years ago of a movie made about her life starring Halle Berry, but now I can see Kerry Washington playing her, too, as she can play very glamourous and slick as Olivia Pope, and can bring that to playing Doris Payne.

Monday, October 26, 2015

Thoughts on A Few Horror Movies

I watched four horror movies yesterday on Netflix. These are my thoughts:

Honeymoon: 2014 horror movie directed by Leigh Janiak, co-written by Phil Graziadei and Janiak, and starring Rose Leslie and Harry Treadaway. It is about a newlywed couple having their honeymoon in a cabin in the woods, and the husband finds his wife sleepwalking naked in the woods one night, and afterwards, it seems as if she is a different person under the shell of his wife. I liked the slow burn of their happy newlywed life slowing turning into terror as the husband is suspicious and confused by his wife's strange behavior and mysterious marks on her body. Leslie and Treadaway were good and kept the story compelling, and even though I felt the reveal for her changes was pretty weak, I still liked the movie anyway.

Pontypool: 2008 Canadian horror movie directed by Bruce McDonald, written by Tony Burgess (adapted from his novel Ponty Changes Everything), and starring Stephen McHattie, Lisa Houle, and Georgina Reilly. It is about a few employees in a radio station who are trapped inside while a virus infects people and causes mass murders and suicides. It mostly centers on a shock jock DJ, a manager, and a station assistant becoming slowly aware of the chaos outside, and trying to understand the virus and protecting themselves. I think Canadian horror is really good, and there is this style that can either be really good horror comedy, or horror that is grounded in reality with likable characters. McHattie and Houle really excelled in this, and it was an interesting movie to watch.

Haunter: 2013 Canadian supernatural horror movie directed by Vincenzo Natali, written by Brian King, and starring Abigail Breslin and Stephen McHattie. Breslin plays the ghost of a teen girl who is trying to understand why she and her dead family are haunting their old house and reliving the day of their deaths over and over again, on a time loop of sorts. It reminded me of other movies (The Others, Groundhog Day), but was well-acted and had a good, suspenseful pace to it. It feels made more for a YA audience, but I still liked it anyway.

A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night: 2014 Iranian-American horror romance movie written and directed by Ana Lily Amirpour, and starring Sheila Vand and Arash Marandi. The film can be described as an "art house vampire spaghetti western." It is about a young woman vampire who stalks the streets at night in her chador and preys on her victims. At home she listens to 80's post punk music and chills out. She has this penetrating stare that makes her really intimidating, especially when she stays quiet for an extended period of time before striking. The film is beautifully shot in black and white, is a cool mix of genres, and feels like a really badass art film.

Saturday, October 24, 2015

Thoughts on Open Windows and The Babadook

I watched two horror thriller movies yesterday, Open Windows and The Babadook.

Open Windows is a 2014 Spanish suspense techno-thriller written and directed by Nacho Vigolondo (Timecrimes), starring Elijah Wood as a guy who wins a contest to have dinner with a popular film actress (Sasha Grey). But after she unexpectedly cancels the contest and the date, he ends up becoming the pawn in a mysterious computer hacker's quest to destroy her life via hidden cameras and often goads Wood's character into hacking and invading her privacy and doing morally questionable things to get to her. The film is shown from POVs of webcams, phone cameras, security cameras, etc., and I thought it made the film look more creative, and helped to bring a lot of suspense to it. Wood was really good in this, I like that he has chosen a lot more adventurous indie movies to act in, like this and Maniac. Sasha Grey was good, too, she got to show more acting ability beyond just her sexuality. It had a third act with some bad twists in it, but I was hooked into most of the film.

The Babadook is a 2014 Australian-Canadian horror film, written and directed by Jennifer Kent, starring Essie Davis and Noah Wiseman. I had dismissed it before because I thought the title sounded dumb, but it was really good. The film is about a single mother and her son, both dealing with grief from her husband's death in a car accident on the way to her giving birth to their child. The boy is having behavioral problems, seems to be on the autism spectrum, and claims to be haunted by a monster from a children's book called the Babadook. The mother is socially isolated from her peers, and gets upset whenever her late husband's name is mentioned, or when her son's unruly antics makes her look bad in front of others. The monster takes control of their lives, stalking them and terrorizing them, especially as prophecies from the book begin to come true.

I liked that the film had deeper meaning to it, about trauma and grief and denial of the dark side of life. Both the leads were very good in this, and the sound design played a huge part in amplifying the fear and isolation of the mother and son. The monster was more a symbol than a typical boogeyman, and I emphasized with both mother and son. So I highly recommend it.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby - Her - A Film Review

The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby is a 2013 three-film series written and directed by Ned Benson, starring James MacAvoy and Jessica Chastain. The films are split into three perspectives: Him, Her, and Them. The films are about a married couple struggling with grief over the death of their son and their relationship falling apart. This review is about Her, which focuses on Eleanor (Chastain) after she has left her husband to figure out her life on her own while grieving.

Chastain excels at bringing emotional vulnerability and rawness to Eleanor, a woman who has undergone a major loss in her life, trying to remake her life. She attempts suicide by jumping off a bridge, moves back in with her parents, cuts her hair, enrolls in a college course, and develops a friendship with her professor, Lilian Friedman (Viola Davis). She remains distant from her husband, and only really confronts him when he has been watching her from afar, trying to make a connection with her again.

It is an interesting and complex look at a woman trying to survive after the loss of her child, and being wracked by depression and anger. She either lashes out at her parents (William Hurt, Isabelle Huppert) or keeps herself secluded. It is her own path to recovery, and she must go through it while learning how to connect with people again.

Some of the most effective scenes in the film are the ones where Eleanor is building or re-building trusting relationships with close ones. Eleanor finds a friend in Lilian, who has a non-maternal attitude towards life, and has accepted loss and handles it with grit and humor. Eleanor re-builds her relationship with her sister Katy (Jess Weixler), who is a single mom with anxieties about dating again. And Eleanor and Conor’s relationship, which is shown in both playfully romantic flashback scenes and in emotionally wrought present-day scenes after her disappearance.

Chastain is a fantastic actress who highly excels at drama and playing complicated women, and her star has risen far since her breakthrough performances in 2011. She continues to shine this year in films like The Martian and Crimson Peak, and is coming into her prime in her late thirties. She is really interesting to watch as an actor, and I like seeing how she continues to excel in a variety of films.

Similarly, James MacAvoy is an acclaimed actor who still seems to fall below the radar in some ways. Perhaps it is because he looks boyish in his late thirties, or he maintains a private life with his family and doesn’t go for celebrity. Still, he is an extremely talented and versatile actor who is always intriguing to watch onscreen.

These films are an ambitious experiment in presenting two POVs of a relationship after trauma, and with a great script by Ned Benson, a talented supporting cast, and solid performances by MacAvoy and Chastain, it is definitely worth a watch.Andrew (Starr), an affable and laid-bac

Thoughts on Room

Room is one of the best movies I have seen this year. It was directed by Lenny Abrahamson and written by Emma Donoghue, based on her novel of the same name. It is a really intimate drama about a young woman keeping her son safe while they are held captive in a shed by an awful man. Brie Larson was just incredible as Joy, a woman who got kidnapped at 17, had a child of rape, and keeps her 5-year old son innocent by convincing him that the whole universe is their one room that they live in, and that outside is outer space, and TV is just full of fictional things. She is trying to keep a happy front for him while dealing with her captor and planning an escape, and she brought a lot of rawness, strength, and vulnerability to this role. She was excellent.

As was Jacob Tremblay, who played her son, Jack. For such a young actor, he was superb in playing a difficult role, and props to Abrahamson and the casting director for getting a little kid who could play a mature role while likely keeping him unaware of the more disturbing aspects of the story, and maintaining his innocent view of the world. Tremblay carries the movie, and was just great.

I felt really moved by this film, and feel it is a really well-researched story about a kidnapped sexual assault survivor and her struggles to maintain her sanity while protecting her child and keeping hope alive for an escape. I highly recommend it.