Thursday, July 24, 2008

Netflix Quick Picks - Round Nine

It's been over a month since Round Eight, so it's about time for Round Nine! Fifteen flicks and most of them are highly rentable! So read on and get ready to update your Netflix queues:

1. The Missing - This Ron Howard western-thriller features a flinty Cate Blanchett, a grizzled Tommy Lee Jones and Eric Schweig as one of the creepiest villains ever. Possibly even more creepy than Javier Bardem's turn in No Country for Old Men...The film also features Ron's dad, Rance and brother Clint in small roles as well. I know a lot of people get irked seeing Clint Howard in yet another example of Hollywood nepotism, but it always warms the cockles of my heart to see his career limping along thanks to brother Ronnie. Anyway, the story of a frontier woman's search for her kidnapped daughter with the aid of her estranged father is beautifully directed and totally gripping. RENT IT!

2. The Sweet Hereafter - Based on my friend John's recommendation, I rented this Atom Egoyan adaptation of the Russell Banks novel about a small town dealing with the tragic aftermath of a school bus crash. Very compelling character studies with some amazing performances; notably the always precocious Sarah Polley and the understated and stalwart Ian Holm. Rent it.

3. True Romance - The last time my brother James was in town, we drove past the Safari Inn and he blurts out, "Hey--the Safari Inn! From True Romance!" Upon hearing that I had not seen the Quentin Tarantino classic, he insisted I rent it immediately. And so I did. What can I say? Tarantino is an awesome writer: sick, twisted, funny, dark, witty, violent. What more could you ask for in a movie? How about a cast that reads like a who's who of Hollywood: Christian Slater, Patricia Arquette, Michael Rapaport, Val Kilmer, Bronson Pinchot, Dennis Hopper, Christopher Walken, Gary Oldman, Brad Pitt, Tom Sizemore, Samuel L. Jackson, James Gandolfini, Saul Rubinek--whew! RENT IT!

4. The History Boys - The movie adaptation of the stage plays suffers mightily from the translation. It's way too verbose and static although it tries its damnedest to break out of its theatrical confines. It never quite manages to--particularly at the end when, instead of utilizing film's ability to flash forward and back in time, it sticks with the theatrical conventions that work fine on stage but seem oh so contrived on screen. Skip it.

5. Flags of Our Fathers - Clint Eastwood attempts to tell the story of the truth behind the famous photo and later even more famous memorial statue. Unfortunately, it's far too repetitive to be engrossing. The actors are great and it feels authentic enough, but it's too unfocused and rambling. It keeps switching story techniques and point-of-view until you're not really sure what the point of the whole thing is. I must say, I'm probably in the minority--but I much prefer Spaghetti-western Clint to Eastwood, the auteur. Skip it.

6. Letters from Iwo Jima - The companion piece to Flags of Our Fathers is told in a much more straightforward fashion--despite being in Japanese with subtitles. It's an intriguing, albeit somewhat long, telling of the other side of the story. Very interesting. Rent it.

7. Away from Her - Sarah Polley's directorial debut netted her an Academy Award nomination for best writing adaptation as well as a Best Actress nomination for Julie Christie. It is a completely assured piece of work by Ms. Polley, save for the annoying tracking dolly shot at the end, and I look forward to seeing her future directing efforts. Julie Christie is completely incandescent as the Alzheimer's afflicted Fiona, but in my opinion it's Gordon Pinsent's portrayal of her husband that deserves acclamation. Rent it.

8. Batman Begins - I'd heard great things about the reboot of the Batman franchise. In anticipation of the release of The Dark Knight, I decided to rent Christopher Nolan's take on the caped crusader. I was underwhelmed. Christian Bale is a hottie and makes a great disaffected playboy in Bruce Wayne. His Batman, however, is relegated to speaking in a hoarse whisper. It's irritating. Michael Caine is great as Alfred, the butler and chameleon Gary Oldman is nearly unrecognizable as the future Commissioner Gordon. As much as I love Morgan Freeman, his role was just a contrivance to set Batman up with his awesome gear. Pretty lame if you ask me. My biggest complaint is the same as when I saw the first Batman with Michael Keaton--shooting the climatic fight scenes in the dark! WTF? What is up with that? How am I supposed to be on the edge of my seat when I can't even freaking make out what's happening on the screen? Anyway, unless you're a big comic book/superhero fan, Skip It.

9. This is England - This oddly affecting coming-of-age story of a young boy who's lost his father in the Falklands War and subsequently gets caught up with a gang of skinheads was based on the experiences of writer/director Shane Meadows. My biggest gripe is that it was hard to understand the dialogue between the accents and colloquiums and the DVD didn't provide subtitles in English. But overall it was a very intriguing story.

The initial gang of skinheads that take in the protagonist Shaun (played by Thomas Turgoose) were more about fashion and music than politics and racism. They were hooligans who engaged in juvenile delinquency by smashing up vacant buildings, rather than smashing heads. But later, Shaun is inducted into a more sinister gang--a band of thugs who indoctrinate him into more militant thinking and hate crime activities. The montages that open and close the film completely set the scene and provide a solid backdrop for the story. Compared to other movies about skinheads that I've seen lately (American History X and The Believer), this was the most insightful and realistic. Rent it.

10. Sunshine - Sci-fi story of the attempt to save Earth by reigniting the sun has its flaws: The characters are not properly introduced, so we've no idea who they are, what they do or why we should care when they eventually die one by one; implausible science and unlikely plot twists and the plain freaking weirdness of Cillian Murphy's eyes--but it's visually stunning with special efforts that look like a big budget Hollywood movie on a mere $50 million budget. Too bad they didn't spend more of that $50 mil on writing a more compelling script and creating more dimensional characters. I'm going to have to say Skip It!

11. No End in Sight - Although the title of Oscar nominated documentary refers to the Iraq War, it could very well be self-referential. Watch five minutes of this film--any five minutes--and you'll be convinced that the Iraq War was ill-conceived, poorly planned and badly mismanaged by the bungling, ineptitude of the Bush administration. Out of the 102 minutes of the running time, the message is gotten in only five. It reminded me of The Fog of War which was about Robert McNamara and the Vietnam War. I kept dozing off during that one as well. It's an important subject--I just wish the filmmakers had come up with a more engrossing way to keep my attention. Rent it, watch five minutes and that should do it!

12. Fracture - This cat-and-mouse game between Anthony Hopkins and Ryan Gosling requires the viewer to suspend disbelief for a number of unlikely coincidences. If you can manage to do that, Fracture is a compelling little thriller. Hopkins channels creepy Hannibal Lecter in his role as accused murderer Ted Crawford--it's something he can do in his sleep. For Sir Anthony at his best, I recommend Shadowlands. God, he was awesome in that film! Gosling, on the other hand, delivers a nice performance as the deceptively drawling Willy Beachum, an ambitious trial attorney who wants one last notch on his D.A. belt before he bolts to private practice. I figured the twist out about midway through the film--and then was frustrated by the seemingly smart characters bumbled around for much longer. But it's a nice little lesson in how to raise the stakes for your protagonist--as well as a decent thriller. I enjoyed it. Rent it.

13. Shooter - Marky Mark, er, I mean Wahlberg plays Bob Lee Swagger, a former Army sniper who is framed for the assassination of the archbishop of Ethiopia. Michael Pena (Crash) plays an FBI agent who becomes his unlikely ally and Danny Glover is the bad guy. It's Die Hard on the run or a lesser version of The Bourne Identity. Still, it's got action, chase scenes, people getting shot and shit getting blown up. And Marky--er, Mark Wahlberg shirtless. It's an entertaining microwave popcorn flick. Rent it.

14. F for Fake - Should be titled "B for Boring." This unwieldy documentary based on the Clifford Irving biography of Elmyr de Hory, notorious art forger, has plenty of interesting subjects: Elmyr de Hory, Irving--who perpetrated a notorious fraud of his own with a faked autobiography of Howard Hughes--and even Hughes himself. Where it suffers is from the insufferable and all-consuming inclusion of Welles himself. As writer, director and preening narrator, he somehow manages to make the movie all about him. Snore. Unfortunately, by 1975, Welles was not the boy wonder who convinced America they were being invaded by Martians, but the Paul Masson wine purveyor who unctuously uttered, "We will sell no wine before its time!" and this film shows it. Its "free-form" style looks more ADD-addled and I was over it in about ten minutes. SKIP IT!!!

15. Into the Wild - Sean Penn wrote the script and directed this film based on the Jon Krakauer book about Christopher McCandless, who abandoned his upper middle-class upbringing to live in the wilderness with tragic results. There are some moving performances--Emile Hirsch is heartbreakingly beautiful as the naive and idealistic Chris aka "Alexander Supertramp," Catherine Keener gives a lovely nuanced performance as an aging hippie earth mother, Vince Vaughn is engaging as always and Hal Holbrook offers a painfully affecting turn as a cranky geezer who is touched by his brief time with McCandless. But the real star of the film is the great outdoors which Penn, along with cinematographer Eric Gautier, captures in all its majesty and splendor. It even made this die-hard "room service is roughing it" type a bit wistful. Not enough to go crazy and go camping or anything like that, mind you--but a bit awed and wistful all the same. A little long, but beautifully done. Rent it!


  1. Hey, I like your short, snappy reviews and recommendations. I agree with you about Into the Wild. I thought it was great. I loved the book, too. I don't know if you've seen Atom Egoyan's movie about the Armenian genocide, Ararat, but it's very good, too. (It's told from a current-day perspective).

  2. Thanks for the kind words!

    The Sweet Hereafter is the only Egoyan film I've seen, but now I'll have to add Ararat to my list!

    Thanks for the suggestion!