This Week on Demand: 04/08/02013

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Editor’s Notes: Reviews this week are by Ronan Doyle, Jaime Burchardt, Pete Volk, and Ashley Norris

It’s somewhat impressive, the way Netflix manages to start every month with a massive content drop with movies numbering in the many dozens, yet nonetheless never to break from tradition. As ever with these batches, the films below include classic exploitation titles, new independent American film, and a host of Oscar-nominees and action hits of yesteryear. Oh, and Titanic, but none of us were willing to spare the time. Sorry.


attack-of-the-crab-monsters-1957Attack of the Crab Monsters

Like an hour-long special of a (good) Twilight Zone episode, Attack of the Crab Monsters is simply B-horror perfection. Roger Corman expertly inverts the genre’s normal relationship with audience knowledge, as the characters know more than us about what is coming for them. They waste no time revealing the monster, and that’s okay: it’s not much to look at, but the psychological questions that follow are surprisingly nuanced, complex and interesting. Ever the B-movie master, Corman is economical in his shots, and even manages to fit in a complex love triangle, done in a beautiful and understated fashion. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED. ~PV


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About Sunny

Oddly often equally boring and beguiling, writer/director Bryan Wizemann’s second feature About Sunny rests itself squarely on the shoulders of leading lady Lauren Ambrose, whose immense likeability is paramount to offsetting the overarching sense of dislike her problematic character engenders. It’s hard to tell, in watching the film, just what Wizemann makes of this woman, whose loving relationship with the titular young daughter is complicated by an endless succession of financial setbacks. It’s clear in this narrative that Ambrose’s character is the one to be rooted for, but her improbable mood swings make investment extremely difficult, therein undermining the central dilemma on which the final act is hinged. Ambrose is an immense lead however: she may be working with flawed material, but she does her all to hide that fact, heaping empathy upon a character who is, in the end, very difficult to see as anything other than selfish. WORTH WATCHING. ~RD


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Best Worst Movie (Read our full review)

How lucky they are, those who consider Troll 2 the worst movie they’ve ever seen. Undoubtedly it is awful, its garish combination of utterly nonsensical narrative and—to put it mildly—abominable acting making it easy to see why someone would look on it as the bottom of the cinematic barrel. Yet there’s a sweet innocence to it, a sly charm to this unfortunate confluence of talentlessness in every department: it may be dreadful, but all it ever meant to do was entertain. Michael Stephenson understands this, and his return to the film that failed to start his acting career makes for a brilliant documentary, a simultaneous overview and analysis of the cult celebrity the film and its makers have attained. What’s particularly interesting, however, is the subtlety with which Stephenson invokes the idea that movies are what we make at them: that perception is just as important as intent. Against all odds, Troll 2 has spawned a great film. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED. ~RD


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Clockers

It’s not hard to see what might have attracted Martin Scorsese to sign on as producer of Clockers, the 1995 Spike Lee joint that stars Harvey Keitel as a weary New York detective investigating the shooting of a drug dealer. Keitel’s is a character right out of Scorsese’s New York, thrust forthright into the bosom of Lee’s as worlds and moral perspectives collide. It’s a fascinating piece of work, at once a genre piece and an insightful social drama, its narrative drive never hiding the underlying concerns which permeate its every scene. Like several of Lee’s films, Clockers can be viewed as an uncanny spiritual successor to Do the Right Thing; indeed there’s a line of dialogue that directly invokes the earlier film and reaffirms the director’s constant concern, that yearning for people to just smarten up and see the senselessness of their ways. That it’s all that and damn funny too is integral to Lee’s enduring appeal. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED. ~RD


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Days of Thunder

Seen largely—and, let’s be honest, legitimately—as an effort on the part of Paramount Pictures to recapture the success they had managed with the earlier Top Gun, Days of Thunder again pairs director Tony Scott and star Tom Cruise for a fast-paced tale of male rivalry and bonding centred on an action narrative. This time it’s NASCAR racing that provides the speeding vehicles for Scott to energetically shoot, which indeed he does with all the flair and panache we might expect. It’s the script that lacks, and badly: penned by Chinatown’s Robert Towne, it’s an entirely unsurprising story progression that invests us far more in the cars themselves than the drivers operating them. Fun supporting performances abound from the likes of Robert Duvall and Dennis Quaid, but there’s only so much they can do to enliven material this lazily unimaginative. For all the speed—and oh how much there is—Days of Thunder is astonishingly slow. SO-SO. ~RD


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Desperado

Back in 1995, Robert Rodriguez wasn’t Mr. Sin City, Mr. Kids Flicks or Mr. Grindhouse. Back then… he was still simply a rebel without a crew. Don’t get me wrong: he’s still the same lovable filmmaker that loves to take the phrase “stylize” to new levels. It was just different back then. Desperado, the sequel to his self-funded indie legend El Mariachi, is a still his ultimate sort of love letter to, well, himself: a hyperkinetic kid that wanted to tell a story while defying all common senses with the roughest of ease. Sounds rugged, right? But alas, even after all these years it’s still a thrill to watch. Antonio Banderas is on a quest to find the people responsible for the death of his beloved, and he’ll kill anyone that gets in his way. If you’re a first-time viewer, that’s all you need to know. Make this a double feature with the first chapter and you’re set. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED. ~JB


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Do the Right Thing

Rightly regarded as one of the most important investigations of race-relations in the history of American cinema, Spike Lee’s breakthrough hit may carry a massive cultural weight, but it’s primarily for the wit with which it’s delivered that the film has remained so iconic. That’s the joy of Lee’s work here, his earnest script providing a deeply funny foundation on which to build his compelling drama of ordinary people coming to terms with the extraordinary hate systematically bred within them. This is an important film—a vital one, indeed—but that’s never what plays on the mind of the viewer in the course of the movie: that’s the characters instead, their endearing relationships and joyous exchanges, the shallows and the depths of their existence which Lee explores. Only when that’s upset do we realise just how smartly this hand has been played, just how close to the surface Lee has held this force. When it hits, it hits us hard. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED. ~RD


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Eden (Read our full review)

Beau Bridges’ slimy performance is the finest thing to be seen in Eden, a film that could stand to be as firm in its convictions as he. Playing the faux-friendly operator of a sex slave ring, he embodies the precise sense of sexual horror the film would benefit from displaying in itself. Centred on Jamie Chung’s eponymous young Korean-American, whose abduction is our gateway into this seedy underbelly of American society. Just how much of an underbelly it is is the primary concern for writer/director Megan Griffiths, whose foregrounding of the sort of high-profile events to which Eden and her makeshift friends are ferried asks questions about just how much we’re willing to knowledge the existence of this world. Though the reluctance to portray its most sordid aspect robs the film of the power it might perhaps have otherwise had, Eden remains a disconcertingly effective work, a powerful social statement that loudly resonates. RECOMMENDED. ~RD


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Event Horizon

When you try so hard to look like Alien in the first twenty minutes it’s hard to see this as anything other than a wannabe. Instead of a Xenomorph it focuses on a different type of horror as they come across the ship, Event Horizon, which went into a blackhole to return empty… or is it? Playing out like a typical sci-fi horror thriller, it does benefit from some good gore but it also suffers from the fact that it slaps physics in the face the majority of the time. Soaking the dialogue in complicated technical terms doesn’t make your film smart if what you say is contradictory and downright wrong. That and the blatant misinterpretation of the word vacuum. There are some decent moments in it but it’s encumbered by an awkward script, typical archetypes and some dreadful, illogical special effects: sparks fly out of everything all of the time. AVOID IT. ~AN


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It’s a Disaster (Read our full review)

The high concept comedy, as the combined successes of the not-dissimilar The World’s End and This Is the End have shown this year, is a structure to which audiences are gladly receptive: paring laughs with a simple narrative conceit carries the potential of considerable comic dividends. Not quite so for It’s a Disaster, which sets its humour against yet another apocalyptic backdrop: the laughs are strong, often very much so, but the grand plot device never plays out as well as it ought to. Writer/director Todd Berger has gathered a fine cast to enact this silly tale, chief among which are David Cross and Julia Stiles as the new couple who attend a brunch to introduce the former to the latter’s friends. Situational comedy abounds, of course, and Berger has a knack for pushing his scenes to uncomfortably awkward extents. Once the conceit kicks in and the drama begins to deepen, great comedy turns, alas, but good. RECOMMENDED. ~RD


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Night Watch (Read our full review)

I’m not going to argue that the films of Timur Bekmambetov (Wanted, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter) are faultless. But man oh man, the guy sure knows how to have fun. He doesn’t always succeed 100% but it has to be admired that he tries to wrap mirth with a thick thread of originality. You won’t find better proof of that than his debut feature. There’s been an ongoing battle between the forces of light and dark, with neither side really having an advantage, until Anton comes along. He holds the key to a force that could either end the war once and for all and bring peace, or destroy all of mankind. Night Watch clearly comes from a place that houses machismo, ingenuity and a giddily warped mind. The pace doesn’t slow down enough for you to sink it all in at times, but that’s just fine. It’s engaging as it is silly as hell (they really need to finish the trilogy). RECOMMENDED. ~JB


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Piranha

The second line of Piranha is “well, let’s stop and make camp pretty soon”. What follows is exactly that: a campy parody of Jaws with that typical cloy-y B-movie dialogue that means something entirely different to the audience than to the person they’re talking to. It’s very much an “if you’re into that sort of thing” movie: you either enjoy cheeky B-horror or you don’t. Some of the scenes are legitimately suspenseful, but most are just silly, with Paul Bartel highlighting the film as a ridiculously strict camp director. WORTH WATCHING. ~PV


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Running Scared

Rarely has Paul Walker been credited as a good actor—sometimes people question whether he is even an actor—but there’s a possibility they haven’t seen this. Not only is he actually interesting to watch as Joey Gazelle (yes, really) but he does a lot of stuff that is rarely credited in a performance. It’s subtle things that he pulls off well, whereas this film is far from subtle. It goes at such a ferocious pace that there’s barely an ounce of breathing space within it which works in its favour. It goes so rip-roaringly quick that you can’t think of how over-the-top and violent it can be. It’s a dark, twisted story played out at a frantic speed thanks to frenetic editing that’s stitched together by some underappreciated performances by the supporting cast. It’s such a perverse view on the world that it ends up being mental fun. RECOMMENDED. ~AN


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Slaughter

How fitting it is that Stewart Hopewell, writer and director of Slaughter, made his bones as a camera assistant on Going to Pieces: The Rise and Fall of the Slasher Film. His movie embodies so perfectly the latter part of that subtitle from its very first moments and the garishly cheap aesthetic to which they introduce us. Telling the story of a young woman who moves to her friend’s country farm to escape her abusive boyfriend, it’s as reductive and redundant a slasher film as you could hope to find, following the formula of the genre to a tee and never daring to diverge even minutely. Its most profound “innovation” is the introduction of a second potential murdered, which just broadens the scope of the inadequacy on display. That so much of the movie takes place in the midst of animal waste is delightfully appropriate, placing these characters right at the level of everything else. UNWATCHABLE. ~RD


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Swimming with Sharks

The career of writer/director George Huang hasn’t fully materialized since he made his debut 19 years ago (he does have something in the works for 2014 though). Alas, it cannot be ignored that his debut was ex-freaking-plosive. A guy aptly named Guy (Frank Whaley) lands a dream job in Hollywood. It’s just too bad that his boss (Kevin Spacey back when he was just rising above the ‘under-the-radar’ fog) is the authority figure from hell. Guy gets pushed, and pushed, and pushed, until the eventually snapping lands him a kidnapping charge as he tries to show just who’s boss. Huang does a first-rate job of balancing humor with the intensity that fills the atmosphere. His screenplay gives Spacey and Whaley enough boost to showcase two of the most underrated performances of 1994. Let’s not forget, it has an ending that is truly shocking for those who just don’t have a clue. *sigh* I do hope Huang comes back strong. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED. ~JB


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Tabloid

How delicious a film is Errol Morris’ Tabloid, how fun and frenetic. And how appropriate too, replicating as all those things do the essence of tabloid journalism. Focusing on the infamous UK case of Joyce McKinney, an American who allegedly kidnapped and raped her Mormon Missionary ex-fiancé, this is less an exposé of that particular brand of writing than it is, simply, a wickedly energetic examination of this story and the people behind it. Morris’ sense of enjoyment here is contagious, the ironic vim with which interviewees’ phrases are sprawled across their faces making it as visually engaging a piece as narratively. This is no work of social and political import the like of The Thin Blue Line or The Fog of War, just a great story put in the hands of a great storyteller, who delivers it with a richness of wit that’s positively dazzling. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED. ~RD


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The Breakfast Club

What more is there to be said about a film so deeply engrained within popular culture that even those who haven’t seen it know its iconic moments precisely? The Breakfast Club is everything its reputation suggests: a slice of fun very much of its time; a story of friendship; a breaking-down of social boundaries; an exploration of identity and the ways we hide from ourselves. John Hughes has a key message to convey here, but never does he let that override the sheer delight of the film, the sense of wonder and wit it carries in its every exchange. Which, of course, is not to say it’s an entirely happy movie: Hughes would be far less interesting without the undercurrents of sadness that fill his characters, those teens on the precipice of adulthood. The Breakfast Club may well be the best example of his style and substance both. RECOMMENDED. ~RD


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The Telephone Book

It’s with good reason that you might not have heard of The Telephone Book, Nelson Lyon’s bizarre and almost inexplicable 1971 independent film. Its reputation, though perhaps small, is immense: transgressive in form and content, it’s precisely the kind of movie that allowed for the birth of New Hollywood, showcasing the kind of imagery that had never previously been seen, certainly not by mainstream audiences. Loosely concerning a woman who investigates the origin of a dirty phone call, it’s more like a series of loose and ludicrously lewd sketches cobbled together with all the nudity to hand. Lyon is interested here in smashing through boundaries with sheer excess: it’s easy to decry his film as smutty exploitation, chiefly because it is, and that’s precisely the point. The Telephone Book plays like the collective sexuality of four decades of American film finally let loose. And what a climax it is. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED. ~RD


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Tristana

Reuniting just three years after the provocative Belle du Jour, Luis Buñuel and Catherine Deneuve crafted a film more subtle in its sexuality with Tristana. Deneuve plays the eponymous newly-orphaned nineteen year-old, taken in and adored by the aristocratic Don Lope. Amidst typical digs at the upper classes—Lope refuses to work in any capacity, despite dwindling financial resources—Buñuel creates a rather reserved yet ever-intensive look at the way in which the genders treat each other, using his narrative the showcase the way preconceived roles tend to consume themselves and each other. It’s a fine film, perhaps more intriguing than entertaining: Buñuel, as ever, has much to say here, yet the way in which he says it is less powerful and provocative than in his other work. Nevertheless, he reliably hits his mark, and the quiet wit with which Lope and his ilk are lampooned is matched in the shy sadness of Tristana’s life. RECOMMENDED. ~RD


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Zack and Miri Make a Porno

Perhaps if he were less publicly obnoxious, it might be easy to pity Kevin Smith. It can’t be easy to taste auteur fame—to be held aloft with the likes of Tarantino—and to then have it all come crashing down. His career his all but fallen to tatters since Jersey Girl, its exceptionally poor reception spawning a series of desperate movies that play like Smith’s fingers clinging to the edge of a cliff. Zack and Miri Make a Porno is among the less egregious of these, though its patent efforts to nab the formula of the Judd Apatow stable attest a filmmaker entirely out of his own ideas. Seth Rogen reprises the role he plays in all those films, joining Elizabeth Banks in a well-meaning but equally uninspired twist on the friends with benefits scenario, propped up only by the particular twist of Smith’s brand of dialogue. It’s just not enough: not for us, or for him. SO-SO. ~RD


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Zodiac

Fincher returned to the genre that he mastered with Se7en and decided to take it in an entirely different way. It’s an adaptation of the book by Robert Graysmith (played by Jake Gyllenhaal) of a cartoon artist investigating the eponymous real life serial killer who titled himself The Zodiac. This details a man’s obsession of solving the mystery that consumes him more than a blood lust. Its lengthy running time flies by quietly and meticulously. It rarely focuses on the murders; it focuses its attention on tension that wrings with every uncertain scene. While the mood of Se7en was very gothic, this is a much more sterile and clinical look at the procedures of evidence collecting when there’s so little. Performances really involve you in the character’s frustrations. Handwriting has never been more intriguing nor important and a steady case of breathing will send more chills than all out horror flicks. Everything and nothing is interesting. MUST SEE. ~AN

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About Author

Ronan Doyle is an Irish freelance film critic, whose work has appeared on Indiewire, FilmLinc, Film Ireland, FRED Film Radio, and otherwhere. He recently contributed a chapter on Arab cinema to the book Celluloid Ceiling, and is currently entangled in an all-encompassing volume on the work of Woody Allen. When not watching movies, reading about movies, writing about movies, or thinking about movies, he can be found talking about movies on Twitter. He is fuelled by tea and has heard of sleep, but finds the idea frightfully silly.