This Week on Demand: 08/09/2013

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Editor’s Note: Reviews this week are by Ronan Doyle and Daniel Tucker

Apologies aplenty are due for the heinous crime that was last week’s entire absence of a Netflix column. Hopefully, being as it is but the fourth time in this series’ seventy-five edition history that you were made to go without, not to mention for a fine and worthy reason, forgiveness can be had. September’s first-of-the-month batch offers plenty opportunity for penance, at least, and the massive mound of movies below should be more than enough to sate even the most unforgiving of readers. A nice portion of new movies mingle with older offerings in a content collection that’s predominantly Anglo-centric, but not without its few foreign delights. How could anyone be anything other than happy? Dig in.


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American Mary (Read our full review)

Wearing its bloody heart on its sleeve with a sick sense of humour to make the directors’ appellation—the “Twisted Twins”—seem entirely earned, American Mary gleefully doles out violence aplenty in telling the tale of the eponymous medical student whose unwilling arrival amidst the criminal cognoscenti eventually brings her to the weird world of body modification. In essence a rape-revenge movie, Jen and Sylvia Soska’s sophomore feature gaily plays on the conventions of that subgenre, ensuring shrivelled members aplenty among its male audience as well as offering a heroine whose strength is never in spite of her femininity. Katherine Isabelle’s is a magnificent central performance, tiding the movie over through its more questionable narrative decisions and remaining every step of the way a character both frightfully imposing and entirely empathetic. How inventive a horror this is; how nice to see gore as gruesome as it is, in the end, necessary. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED. ~RD


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California Solo (Read our full review)

How nice it is to see Robert Carlyle, the wonderful Scottish actor too often consigned to supporting roles, given a meaty lead to sink his teeth in. California Solo, the second feature from writer/director Marshall Lewy, sees him play a once-promising guitarist whose failed dreams gradually reveal their reason as the drama takes its course. If it sounds like typically indie fare it shouldn’t; with Carlyle’s powerhouse performance and Lewy’s uncanny ability to exploit the mental darkness it suggests, this is a film of unlikely power, its familiar elements constructing a convincing character study despite themselves. And isn’t the mark of a movie well-made, one that transcends the cliché it implements and finds the actuality beneath the archetypes? California Solo is somehow all the more impressive for how well-worn its aspects are; its similarities to other independent offerings only serve to accentuate its differences. RECOMMENDED. ~RD


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Electrick Children (Read our full review)

“Pregnant by music?” is the slightly startling tagline that accompanies Electrick Children, an interesting indie drama that acts at times as almost an inverse of Witness, taking Mormon characters out of their comfort zone and seeing them truly come into their own under the neon glare of Las Vegas. Julia Garner is appreciably doe-eyed as Rachel, the fifteen year-old who flees her family after being found to be with child, which she claims to be a consequence of listening to forbidden music in the dead of night; Liam Aiken, too, is terrific as the brother suspected of being the father. Together the two take to the city where a host of culture shock comedy ensues. Garner does a fine job balancing her wittier moments with the subject’s inherent seriousness, though the narrative trajectory never feels anything more than perfunctorily procedural. It’s Garner’s performance that’s the real attraction here; her energy is the movie’s, her successes are its. WORTH WATCHING. ~RD


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Flesh for Frankenstein

“To know death, Otto, you have to fuck life… in the gall bladder!” There you go, I’ve spared you the eighty minutes of Flesh for Frankenstein extraneous to the one line that’s earned it eternal fame. Largely labelled as “Andy Warhol’s”, it’s more a movie that takes the publicity assured by his name than one truly involving his creative input. That’s the concern of writer/director Paul Morrissey, who orchestrates a demented twist on the Frankenstein mythos here, having Udo Kier play the doctor with all the manic zeal we know him for. Proudly and prominently an exploitation film, the interesting concern with sexuality in all its many forms is perhaps the only thing that earns this much attention, and even that’s a minimal component. Shot in gimmicky 1970s 3D, the movie boasts a magnificently silly spleen-on-a-stick gag; would that the rest were half as fun. SO-SO. ~RD


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Le Quattro Volte (Read our full review)

Here is a movie that has the confidence to make a protagonist of a tree. Michelangelo Frammartino’s film, pitched somewhere between documentary and drama, is a dialogue-free chronicle of life in its equally ephemeral and eternal stature. Loosely comprised of four sections, only one of which involves a human character, it’s at once utterly simplistic and profoundly complex, the grand invocations it makes about life, the universe, and everything rendering it an inexplicably moving viewing experience that’s variously hilarious and heartbreaking, often for no conceivable reason at all. Beautifully composed in long, static shots—the camera will occasionally move to follow the movements of the funniest goats ever seen on screen—Le Quattro Volte is pure cinema without the pretension that label suggests, a simple utilisation of the integral abilities of film to record life. The story it comes to tell, practically an incidental finding it stumbles upon, is the greatest ever told. MUST SEE. ~RD


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Life 2.0

Where Le Quattro Volte is life, the tale of us and all around, Life 2.0 is perhaps an extension of that, a look at the life we’ve created beyond life, the world we’ve established online to supplement our own. Centred on Second Life, the enormously popular virtual reality “game” that boasts some 33 million users, Jason Spingarn-Koff’s documentary uses a handful of these users as a conduit to some understanding not just of the site itself, but of human nature and what such integration with the internet has to say about us as a species. Candidly covering topics of obsession and loneliness, quietly looking on as real-world relationships are lost thanks to Second Life and other, new ones are forged, it’s an interesting piece of work that acts as intriguing anthropological study, even spanning law suits and the application of intellectual property rights to in-world creations. RECOMMENDED. ~RD


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Our Idiot Brother (Read our full review)

Appropriately aping the idea of family on which its screenplay is founded, Our Idiot Brother was penned by siblings David Schisgall and Evgenia Peretz and directed by her husband Jesse. We can only hope the eponymous character has no founding in real life; he, played with indomitable cheer by Paul Rudd, is a hippy idealist whose collapsing life causes him to invade those of his three sisters and their respective families. It’s the very definition of a film that tries to have its cake and eat it, pitching Rudd’s character as unbearably annoying yet simultaneously expecting us to find his antics amusing. Occasionally they are, and the film isn’t without its share of silly set pieces that work, but mostly the laughs are few and far between, and drowned in the faux-warmth typical of this brand of comedy. A fine cast makes things passable, if utterly unremarkable. SO-SO. ~RD


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Parker

In its better action sequences, it’s clear that Parker understands the appeal of being a Jason Statham movie, having the hard-as-nails Englishman fling people from top-floor windows and punch others in the head. It’s not to discredit the man’s acting skills to say that most viewers expect such wild violence from his vehicles; rarely is a ticket bought in order to appreciate Statham’s thespian acumen. Why, then, director Taylor Hackford doesn’t have the sense to just cut to the chase and drop the perfunctory padding is a frustrating mystery. Featuring Jennifer Lopez as a not-quite-love-interest estate agent who unwittingly ends up at the heart a heist planned by former associates of Statham’s jewel thief, it’s a movie with nary an original idea to its name, its drive to be a bad adaptation of Donald E. Westlake’s novel series depriving it of just about all intrigue. AVOID IT. ~RD


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Requiem for a Dream

Two years after making the most extraordinary debut in the form of Pi, Darren Aronofsky returned to reveal all that as just a trial run. Requiem for a Dream is that rarest of things: a work of art so successful in its evocation of its characters’ pain that the idea of ever watching it again is repulsive and compelling in equal measure. Loosely examining the idea of addiction as it manifests itself across a disparate cast of characters, it’s a masterful movie driven by Aronofsky’s visceral visuals and Clint Mansell’s immense, pervasive score, the emotionally-wrought chords and quick-fire editing ensuring an overwhelming, exhausting viewing experience. The real power, though, comes from Ellen Burstyn’s enormous performance, a devastating distillation of her incredible talents through a role truly worthy thereof. She is the heart of Requiem for a Dream, and the key to the emotional wallop that makes it both a must see, and a never-see-again. MUST SEE. ~RD


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Rodan

With Pacific Rim resurrecting mainstream interest—or at least attempting to do so—in giant Japanese monsters, and Gareth Edwards’ Godzilla reboot coming ever closer, it’s nice to see Kaiju pioneer Ishirô Honda garnering some Netflix recognition. Rodan is one of many of the maestro’s movies welcomed on demand this week—many of Godzilla’s earliest adventures against Mothra and the likes are also included—though both it and the original Gojira are presented in a US re-edit featuring less-than-stellar Anglophonic dubbing and politically-conscious added scenes and restructuring. The excellent creature design by Eiji Tsuburaya may remain in all its glory, but this is a sadly corrupted version of Honda’s film, the distracting dubbing making it all but impossible to enjoy as intended. Still, if nothing else it acts as an impetus to seek out the films in their original glory; that can never be a bad thing. SO-SO. ~RD


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The Brass Teapot (Read our full review)

Not without its intrigue, Ramaa Mosley’s concept of a teapot that spouts bills in exchange for its owners’ self-harming is a nicely exploitative twist on the desperate measures prompted by our cash-strapped times. Adapted by Tim Macy from their co-written short of the same name, The Brass Teapot badly mishandles the possibilities of its plot, opting for the easiest slapstick gag at every turn and wasting every ounce of impressive talent it has to its name. Crudely “comic” in one moment, cloyingly sentimental the next, it’s a movie as uneven as a mountain range, and every bit as tiring to traverse. Juno Temple and Michael Angarano commit admirably to the cause, variously spanking and screaming at each other with the utmost vim and alacrity, but it’s to no meaningful end when confronted with the barrage of ethnic stereotypes and easy humour Mosley is content to pit them against. AVOID IT. ~RD


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The Panic in Needle Park

It’s not hard to imagine a modern teenager, familiar with Al Pacino perhaps for his easy action movie antics and Adam Sandler supporting roles, failing to recognise him as he appeared in the 1970s. The handsome, soft-spoken kid who stars in The Panic in Needle Park is worlds removed from the shouty old man we see today. It’s little surprise that this, Pacino’s first leading role—and only his second film credit—led to his casting in The Godfather a year later; the slow transformation demanded in that name-making role is fully evident here in his character’s evolution from loving boyfriend to drug-addled hustler. Kitty Winn enacts an arc every bit as tragic in the role of Pacino’s girl; between them the pair craft a romance as genuinely affecting as it is determinedly doomed. Not quite a highlight of its era, The Panic in Needle Park is at least a firm announcement of its major young talents. RECOMMENDED. ~RD


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The Possession (Read our full review)

As entertaining as it is inspiringly titled, The Possession is another entry in the never-ending catalogue of forgettable horror movies. Granted, the film features some pretty cool stylistic choices by director Ole Bornedal, most notably the moments where Bornedal ends the scene just as it climaxes to near-breaking point, an obvious tip of the hat to William Friedkin’s The Exorcist. This isn’t a terrible movie, and in fact it even starts out quite promising. However by the time the film reaches its third act, its countless unintentionally funny moments and clichéd plot developments have destroyed any potential or credibility the movie held. AVOID IT. ~DT


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The Purple Rose of Cairo

One of the few films of his gargantuan career for which he understands his fans’ appreciation, The Purple Rose of Cairo is a beautiful blip in Woody Allen’s career, a movie that stands out from the crowd with the kind of story scarcely seen across the body of his work. Its heroine is Cecilia, an unfulfilled 1930s housewife whose small escape through the silver screen finds a literal inversion when a movie character breaks through the fourth wall to join her in the real world. A lovely leap into the world of magic realism, it’s one of Allen’s more individual works grounded in Mia Farrow’s marvellous performance and given life in the animated acting of Jeff Daniels as the movie man made real. Funny as ever, it’s the underlying sense of sadness that’s perhaps made this one of Allen’s more universally adored successes, as well as its shining salute to the transcendent power of cinema. RECOMMENDED. ~RD


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There Will Be Blood

From its wordless opening movement to the already-iconic hysterical screaming with which it ends, There Will Be Blood is as grand a cinematic achievement as our young century has seen. Paul Thomas Anderson here cements himself as one of the foremost talents not just of contemporary American cinema, but of all film history, his bravura visual compositions matched only in their complexity by the novelistic grandeur of his script. Yet at the centre of it all is the towering presence of Daniel Day Lewis, whose oilman Daniel Plainview is at once the essential embodiment of American capitalism and a fully-fledged, wholly human character in his own right. There’s an operatic intensity to Anderson’s atmosphere; the film’s every moment plays like the calm before the storm, like the earth’s quiet trembling before a blowout. There Will Be Blood is rightly regarded as not just one of the best movies of our time, but of all time. MUST SEE. ~RD


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The Seven Year Itch

Coming just a few years before his hit comedy Some Like It Hot would effectively overrule the outdated insistences of the MPAA’s Production Code, Billy Wilder’s The Seven Year Itch features much the same risqué sexual humour that would find peak expression in that later feature. Here, Wilder gives us the story of a happily married man whose faithfulness to his family is tested by the allure of an upstairs neighbour while they’re on vacation at the seaside. Tom Ewell brilliantly performs the role he originated onstage, making every minute movement of his character hilarious as he fights the most primal of urges. Marilyn Monroe’s is a less gratifying role, if a far more iconic one, this the film that features that iconic skirt shot. Uneven at times—the opening act is far funnier than anything that follows—The Seven Year Itch remains nonetheless a wildly witty Wilder romp. RECOMMENDED. ~RD


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The Shipping News

Lasse Hallström’s film of Annie Proulx’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel is, like the director’s earlier adaptation of John Irving’s The Cider House Rules, both respectful and different enough to act as a faithful rendition whilst still functioning fully as a standalone cinematic story. It helps that the Newfoundland coast on which most of the narrative takes place is so picturesque; Hallström lends a fitting grandeur to his landscapes, allowing them to simultaneously embody nature’s aesthetic appeal and its cruel carelessness. A perfectly-cast Kevin Spacey heads up the impressive roster of talent Hallström attracts, Julianne Moore and Judi Dench also offering excellent turns in crafting the story of a grief-stricken man who returns to the past in the hope of forging a path to the future. Though occasionally a tad too sentimental, The Shipping News is an ideal adaptation, equally understanding the book and the need, sometimes, to depart from it. RECOMMEDED. ~RD


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Tied

A fitting companion piece to The Brass Teapot in many ways, Hélène Fillières’ erotic drama invites immediate economic parallels in its story of a banker whose sadomasochistic relationship with his mistress reveals some strange and striking issues of power. Alas, it’s more in form than content that the real similarities are to be found: like Mosley’s movie, Tied is a terrible waste of a fine idea, its pertinent potential quickly squandered on a sensationalist sensibility that betrays the filmmakers’ desire to exploit the newspaper headline from which the plot was conceived. Benoît Poelvoorde does some interesting things with an odd little role, but Fillières’ script offers neither him nor Laetitia Casta much in the way of meaningful material to work with. If there’s a release this year with which Tied really chimes, it’s The Taste of Money: both glossy takes on the behind-closed-doors lives of the rich and powerful, both utterly devoid of any insight at all. AVOID IT. ~RD


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To the Wonder (Read our full review)

Evidently undeterred by those who found The Tree of Life an impenetrable affair, Terrence Malick returns two years later—surprising for a man who once waited twenty years between films—with the arguably even more evasive To the Wonder. Centred on the romance of an American man and French woman and its eventual, inevitable fallout, its clear comparisons to Malick’s own personal life do much to explain the impassionate atmosphere of intimacy with which this tale of adoration and Americana is told. Olga Kurylenko is magnificent—and not nearly as dancey as detractors would have you believe—as another of Malick’s graceful women while Ben Affleck struggles with his mostly dialogue-free direction, visibly uncomfortable under these impressionistic instructions. Emmanuel Lubezki’s photography is—of course—astonishing, making cinematically stunning a film that’s, if not quite thematically cohesive, infectious in its absolute earnestness. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED. ~RD


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Tuesday, After Christmas

Making a fine return to form after the slightly patchy effort that was 2008’s Boogie, Romanian director Radu Muntean opens Tuesday, After Christmas with the first of many long takes, observing the middle-aged Paul and his young mistress Raluca in bed as they lovingly share the first light of morning. Endearing us to the couple and allowing us to see the genuineness of their affection, Muntean subjectively sets us in its protagonist’s mindset, making all the more conflicting the dilemma that unfolds when we meet his wife and daughter as he decides to confess his infidelity. Carried by devastating performances that brilliantly enact this difficult scenario through Muntean’s painfully unflinching long takes, it’s a magnificently made movie that subjects its viewer to the same central conflict of its character, forcibly engaging the audience in its tensions. It’s indicative of Mundean’s strengths as a filmmaker that so simple a setup can yield such stark drama. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED. ~RD


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War of the Buttons (Read our full review)

The fifth film adaptation of Louis Pergaud’s novel of the same name—and second to see release in France in 2011, just one week after the first—Christophe Barratier’s War of the Buttons is an enjoyable if undemanding take on the story of two rival gangs of kids set against the backdrop of the Second World War. Primarily aimed at a young audience, its characters’ carefree take on the war waging around them slowly gives way to an appreciation of the horrors now so well known to us all that nicely mingles entertainment and education, albeit not in the most original of ways. The child cast is universally excellent, Jean Texier making for a fine lead as his love story subplot moves the movie toward its understanding of the wider issues at play. A parallel adult romance only serves to overstretch the drama, as does the mercilessly manipulative score. WORTH WATCHING. ~RD

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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.