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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 committed 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.

Save the Date - A Film Review

Save the Date is a 2012 romantic comedy-drama directed by Michael Mohan and written by Mohan, Jeffrey Brown, and Egan Reich. The film stars Lizzy Caplan, Alison Brie, Martin Starr, Geoffrey Arend, and Mark Webber. The film focuses on two sisters (Caplan, Brie) who are in relationships with two guys in a rock band (Starr, Arend), and their romantic frustrations and anxieties.

The movie opens with a really sweet title sequence of cartoons of the main characters in their typical relationships, “drawn” by the film’s lead character, Sarah, an artist. They illustrate the characters’ personalities in a fun and relatable way, and match the hipster L.A. vibe of the film.

Sarah (Caplan) is dating Kevin (Arend), but has trouble being in a serious and committed relationship. She moved in with him, but is hesitant about settling down with him, while he wants to marry her quickly. Against his friends’ advice, he proposes to her at his band’s show in front of the audience, and she dumps him, gets her own place, and begins dating Jonathan (Webber), a customer at the bookstore she manages.

Caplan delivers a very complex and interesting performance as a relatable yet unlikable person. While her anxieties are understandable, she is often selfish and inconsiderate, pushing away other people when she feels too emotionally vulnerable or too open beyond her snarky guard.

Beth (Brie) is more traditionally romantic, and is planning her wedding to her boyfriend Andrew (Starr), an affable and laid-back guy. She is dealing with anxiety over the fact that her boyfriend doesn’t care about the wedding or planning details, and is just leaving it to her to manage. She wants an ideal relationship like her parents, and is easily miffed whenever something doesn’t go according to plan.

Brie plays Beth with kindness and sincerity, and Beth has the flaw of trying to fix her sister’s life while trying to keep a happy front for her upcoming nuptials.

Starr is likeable and sympathetic as Andrew, the solid voice of reason amongst the love pathos. He is just a good guy who wants to see happiness amongst his friends, and dreads that Sarah will break Jonathan’s heart, just as she did to Kevin.

Arend brings a heartbroken quality to the dumped Kevin, who mourns the loss of his relationship throughout the film. He isn’t presented as being pathetic, more just emotionally wrought and unable to move on. Kevin isn’t a bad person, but he isn’t too bright, and wasn’t able to tell that his girlfriend wasn’t into marriage or heavy commitment.

Webber plays Jonathan well as a nice guy, but his personality as a self-aware “dorky” hipster is annoying. Jonathan seems too self-aware and tries too hard to be funny. However, he is willing to be emotionally open and grow past old hurts, whereas Sarah distances herself when things get too close, repeating the errors of her relationship with Kevin. Jonathan is good for her, but she doesn’t seem deserving of him.

The film is enjoyable, and is fairly light for its plot. Melonie Diaz is really underused, a talented actress stuck to playing Sarah’s best friend in a few scenes. Diaz showed a lot of charm and talent in Raising Victor Vargas, The Itty Bitty Titty Committee, and Be Kind Rewind, and it is a waste to see her in a throwaway role. Also, the film throws in a couple of subplots in the last third that seemed unnecessary and didn’t add anything special or interesting to the film. It can be a little too hipster for its own good sometimes (the L.A. indie rock scene, twee music, Sarah’s drawings), but the lead performances by Caplan and Brie make the film really strong and enjoyable to watch, as two actresses who deserve to be in well-written and interesting roles in their careers. I would recommend this film as a casual watch for those interested in indie romantic comedy-dramas. Andrew (Starr), an affable and laid-bac

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Thoughts on The Voices

I watched a weird but interesting dark comedy, The Voices. Ryan Reynolds plays a factory worker who hears voices in his head, manifested by his pet cat and dog, acting as his bad conscience and good conscience. He refuses to take his medication because the hallucinations allow him to hear the voices and deny reality. The story gets really twisted as he pursues his work crush with horrible results, and it gets more disastrous from there.

Reynolds is really good in this. He is very convincing as a socially removed guy who prefers to see a fake happy version of the world than reality, and after being in a lot of crap for years, it is good to see Reynolds take a chance and be in an interesting movie finally. Gemma Arterton, Anna Kendrick, and Jacki Weaver are in this, and the film was directed by Marjane Satrapi (Persepolis) and written by Michael R. Perry.

Monday, October 5, 2015

Thoughts on The Intern and The Martian

I saw The Intern and The Martian this weekend. I liked both movies a lot.

The Intern, written and directed by Nancy Meyers, was a nice movie about a 70-year old widower named Ben (Robert DeNiro) doing a tech internship for fun and productivity, and a 30-something year old woman named Jules (Anne Hathaway) trying to handle running a very successful online shopping business and trying to a good family life at home. I liked that it was about a platonic friendship between two very different people who taught each other a lot (morals in life, tech world vs. old-school business, importance of family). And Ben was open to new technology and new experiences and not romanticizing the past, while Jules was not a cold, icy workaholic, but a successful businesswoman who loved her family, but had trouble handling both sides of her life. I didn't like her husband because he looked like a douchey hipster and had a wishy-washy wuss excuse for some of his behavior in the story, but the girl playing their daughter was adorable. I would recommend this movie as an enjoyable movie about friendship.

The Martian, directed by Ridley Scott and written by Drew Goddard, was really suspenseful and interesting to watch. It reminded me of Apollo 13, in that it was an epic space movie, that the story was about a mission to save an astronaut, and the story often volleyed around a triangle of settings: the astronaut (Matt Damon) on Mars, the spaceship crew that had left him when they thought he was dead due to getting hit by debris during a storm on Mars, and the crew at NASA, who were a fun mix of straight-laced old-school types and younger and enthusiastic. nerds. There is a lot of comedy in it, as Damon's character keeps his sense of humor while making video logs and communicating with NASA about his survival tactics, but it still gets suspenseful anyway as people discuss the best options to save him and weigh the pros and cons, as well as in the spaceflight scenes. I liked that there weren't any villains in the movie. The spaceship crew weren't at fault for leaving him there, as he was presumed dead and they had to save themselves; there isn't anyone against saving him (now a Saving Private Ryan in Space joke occurs to me), and people are often problem-solving using science and figuring things out intelligently (even if there are a couple of methods that would likely kill someone in space in real life). I really enjoyed the movie, and would watch it again, it was a good mix of science, humor, suspense, and a talented cast (Jeff Daniels, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Jessica Chastain, Michael Peña, Kristen Wiig, Sean Bean, Donald Glover, Benedict Wong, Sebastian Stan, Kate Mara).